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A team of astronomers led by Dr Gavin Ramsay of Armagh Observatory has spotted violent eruptions from an interacting pair of stars that orbit around each other every 25 minutes. Unusually, these outbursts take place at regular and predictable intervals, erupting every two months.
The new observations were made using the fully robotic Liverpool Telescope sited in the Canary Islands and the orbiting Swift observatory. The results will appear in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The resulting stream of helium travels from one white dwarf and eventually lands on the other at speeds of millions of km per hour. Most of the time the material gets jammed up in a swirling disc around the accreting companion, with only a trickle landing on the star itself, causing it to quietly glow at optical, ultra-violet and X-ray energies. However, the team discovered that every two months the material in the disc gets suddenly released in a giant eruption that causes the stellar system to shine tens of times more brightly than before.
As KL Dra is a helium eating binary that erupts regularly and predictably, scientists can plan detailed and sensitive observations using a range of telescopes when it is in outburst. These observations will potentially have wide ranging implications since the same general process of accretion takes place in many astrophysical systems, ranging from young stars in the process of forming, to massive black holes found at the centre of galaxies.