Skip to main content

Wild ‘heartbreak’ star has waves three times the height of the sun

Astronomers often share news about strange and exotic exoplanets, like one that is shaped like a football or another that has metallic rain. But far-off stars can be strange as well, as one recent piece of research points out. An enormous new type of star, which researchers are calling a “heartbreak” star, has gigantic waves on its surface that are three time the size of our sun.

The star, officially called MACHO 80.7443.1718, gives off regular pulses of brightness, making it similar to a known type of star called a heartbeat star. Stars like this are typically one of a pair, which orbit each other in an elongated, oval-shaped orbit. When the two stars come close to each other, their gravitational forces pull at each other, creating waves on their surfaces, similar to how the moon causes tides on Earth. But this particular star is an extreme version of the phenomenon, with brightness that varies by 200 times as much as a typical example.

Artist conception of the system, where the smaller star induces breaking surface waves in the more massive companion.
Artist conception of the system, where the smaller star induces breaking surface waves in the more massive companion. Melissa Weiss, CfA

This star is large, at 35 times the mass of the sun, and its much smaller companion creates the huge waves that cause the pulses of brightness. These waves reach up to a fifth of the star’s radius, or 2.7 million miles in height, which is about the same height as three of our sun.

“Each crash of the star’s towering tidal waves releases enough energy to disintegrate our entire planet several hundred times over,” said lead researcher Morgan MacLeod of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in a statement. “These are really big waves.”

Breaking wave on a star

The creation and movement of the waves was simulated using a computer model, which showed that the waves swell upwards before crashing over, just like ocean waves. That releases large amounts of energy and results in spray and bubbles, creating a stellar atmosphere and affecting the spin on the star’s surface. This happens around once per month when the two stars pass each other.

“This heartbreak star could just be the first of a growing class of astronomical objects,” MacLeod says. “We’re already planning a search for more heartbreak stars, looking for the glowing atmospheres flung off by their breaking waves.”

The research is published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Astronomers find remnants of planets around 10 billion-year-old stars
Artist’s impression of the old white dwarfs WDJ2147-4035 and WDJ1922+0233 surrounded by orbiting planetary debris, which will accrete onto the stars and pollute their atmospheres. WDJ2147-4035 is extremely red and dim, while WDJ1922+0233 is unusually blue.

Far away in the depths of the Milky Way lie two small, dim stars that are in the final stage of their life. At over 10 billion years old, white dwarfs WDJ2147-4035 and WDJ1922+0233 are among the oldest stars in our galaxy, and recently, astronomers discovered something special orbiting around them: the remains of planets, making this one of the oldest known rocky planetary systems.

Astronomers used data from GAIA, the Dark Energy Survey, and the X-Shooter instrument at the European Southern Observatory to peer at this system. They identified debris from orbiting planetesimals, which are globs of dust and rock which are created during planetary formation. The researchers used spectroscopy to look at the light coming from the two white dwarf stars and break it down into different wavelengths, which can show what materials the stars and the surrounding matter are made of.

Read more
Hubble captures a glowing bridge of stars in Wild’s Triplet
This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows two of the galaxies in the galactic triplet Arp 248 – also known as Wild's Triplet – which lies around 200 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Virgo. The two large spiral galaxies visible in this image – which flank a smaller, unrelated background spiral galaxy – appear connected by a luminous bridge. This elongated stream of stars and interstellar dust is known as a tidal tail, and it formed by the mutual gravitational attraction of the two foreground galaxies.

This week's image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows two of a set of three interacting galaxies called Arp 248. This group, also known as Wild's Triplet, consists of three small spiral galaxiesthat are linked together by bridges of stars.

Located 200 million light-years away in the constellation of Virgo, the trio are named for the Australian astronomer Paul Wild, who was a prominent solar researcher and who studied the group in the 1950s.

Read more
Hunting for evidence of the first stars that ever existed
This artist’s impression shows a field of Population III stars as they would have appeared a mere 100 million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers may have discovered the first signs of their ancient chemical remains in the clouds surrounding one of the most distant quasars ever detected.

As the universe has aged, the type of stars found within it has changed. Heavy elements like iron are created by the reactions which happen inside stars, and when those stars eventually run out of fuel and explode as supernovae, those heavier elements are spread around and incorporated into the next generation of stars. So over time, stars gradually gained higher levels of these heavier elements, which astronomers refer to as their metallicity.

That means that if you could look back at the very earliest stars, born when the universe was young, they would be quite different from stars today. These early stars are known as Population III stars, formed when the universe was less than 100 million years old, and searching for them has been one of the holy grails of astronomy research.

Read more