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A 'Cannibal' Star
September 14, 2010

Left, optical and X ray data of BP Piscium, with artist concept on right

The composite image on the left shows X-ray and optical data for BP Piscium (BP Psc), a more evolved version of our Sun about 1,000 light years from Earth. Chandra X-ray Observatory data are colored in purple, and optical data from the 3-meter Shane telescope at Lick Observatory are shown in orange, green and blue. BP Psc is surrounded by a dusty and gaseous disk and has a pair of jets several light years long blasting out of the system. A close-up view is shown by the artist's impression on the right. For clarity a narrow jet is shown, but the actual jet is probably much wider, extending across the inner regions of the disk. Because of the dusty disk, the star's surface is obscured in optical and near infrared light. Therefore, the Chandra observation is the first detection of this star in any wavelength.

The disk and the jets, seen distinctly in the optical data, provide evidence for a recent and catastrophic interaction in which BP Psc consumed a nearby star or giant planet. This happened when BP Psc ran out of nuclear fuel and expanded into its "red giant" phase.

Jets and a disk are often characteristics of very young stars, so astronomers thought BP Psc might be one as well. However, the new Chandra results argue against this interpretation, because the X-ray source is fainter than expected for a young star. Another argument previously used against the possible youth of BP Psc was that it is not located near any star-forming cloud and there are no other known young stars in its immediate vicinity. The Chandra image supports this absence of a cluster of young stars, since multiwavelength studies show that most of the X-ray sources in the composite image are likely to be rapidly growing supermassive black holes in the centers of distant galaxies.

Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIT/J. Kastner et al. Optical: UCO/Lick/STScI/M. Perrin et al. Illustration: CXC/M. Weiss

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