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Scientists have directly observed for the first time the merger of two closely orbiting stars. Experts have suggested for decades that such stars — which whirl so close to each other that their outer layers actually touch — should ultimately commingle. The new work, by Romuald Tylenda of the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center in Toruń, Poland and collaborators, catches the stars in the act.
Trolling through more than 2,000 observations taken from 2002 to 2010, he and his colleagues found light variations that suggest V1309 Sco was originally a contact binary star, a just-touching pair of stars circling each other about every 1.4 days. Over time, this periodic variation shortened as the stars’ outer layers combined to cocoon both orbs in a single envelope.
At that point the object got brighter, its light doubling every 19 days until late August 2008, when it brightened by a factor of 300 over 10 days. V1309 Sco’s final burst occurred that month when the stars’ cores finally merged and energy from their combined spins erupted outward. It became 10,000 times brighter than its original luminosity and more than 30,000 times brighter than the sun, then quickly faded away over the course of a few months to roughly its original brightness.