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Brief eclipses were discovered during observations of the star NLTT 11748 with the Faulkes Telescope North of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope (LCOGT), a UCSB-affiliated institution. NLTT 11748 is one of the few very low-mass, helium-core white dwarfs that are under careful study for their brightness variations.
Rapid snapshots of the star -- about one exposure every minute -- found a few consecutive images where the star was slightly fainter. Steinfadt quickly realized the importance of this unexpected discovery. "We've been looking at a lot of stars, but I still think we got lucky!" he said.
One of the stars in the newly discovered binary is a relatively rare helium-core white dwarf with a mass only 10 to 20 percent of that of the sun. The existence of these special stars has been known for more than 20 years. Theoretical work predicted that these stars burn hotter and are larger than ordinary white dwarfs. Until now, their size had never been measured. The observations of the star NLTT 11748 by this research group have yielded the first direct radius measurement of an unusual white dwarf that confirms this theory.
The other star in the binary is also a white dwarf, albeit a more ordinary one, composed of mostly carbon and oxygen with about 70 percent of the mass of the sun. This star is more massive and also much smaller than the other white dwarf. The light it gives off is 30 times fainter than that of its partner star in the binary.