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Cosmic CSI team: Whole Earth Telescope focuses on burned-out stars

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Posted June 6, 2013
The command center for the Whole Earth Telescope, coordinated by the University of Delaware, is based at Mount Cuba Astronomical Observatory in Greenville, Del. Credit: Evan Krape

The command center for the Whole Earth Telescope, coordinated by the University of Delaware, is based at Mount Cuba Astronomical Observatory in Greenville, Del. Credit: Evan Krape

Like a CSI unit, a team of astronomers at observatories worldwide has been digging around in the innards of dead stars, collecting evidence on how they died. One of the dead stars actually ate part of its neighbor; another has a history of other astronomical hijinks.

The Whole Earth Telescope (WET), a worldwide network of observatories with its command center at the University of Delaware, periodically focuses on stars of scientific interest in the galaxy’s stellar graveyard.

Working together like a relay team, observers in 17 countries, from the U.S. to China, Brazil to Ukraine, have been focusing their lenses on these target stars whenever they appear in their nighttime sky, effectively operating as a single telescope.

With a marathon two-month-plus observing campaign set to finish up on June 10—the longest in WET’s history—the collaboration expects to yield new insights into the astrophysics of white dwarfs, which are dense stars that have burned up their nuclear fuel and are now cooling.

“White dwarfs are so dense that one tablespoon of their matter would weigh as much as five elephants,” says Judi Provencal, director of the Delaware Asteroseismic Research Center at the University of Delaware. Provencal operates the WET command center at Mount Cuba Astronomical Observatory in Greenville, Del.

The WET team hopes to shed light on the inner workings of these stars, which naturally pulsate, or vibrate.

The team’s primary target, the extremely low-mass white dwarf known as WDJ1518, was once part of a two-star or binary system, before eating its companion—or at least part of it. Discovered only about a year ago by doctoral student J.J. Hermes at the University of Texas at Austin, WDJ1518 is now in a 14-hour orbit around something that is probably another white dwarf or a brown dwarf, according to Provencal. While a white dwarf is massive, a brown dwarf is so light that it can’t sustain the nuclear fusion that fuels other stars.

Read more at: Phys.org

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