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NASA Observe Stellar Circle of Life

Many of you might have heard of constellations, stars, black holes, etc. However, the application of the available information so as to extend and clarify our hypotheses of creation of universe is the main crux behind all those hi-fi astronomy talks! Getting to the point, a snapshot of the life cycle of stars – called Circle of Life – has been captured where a stellar nursery (termed as Little Friend for purposes which you will come to know as you go through the write-up) is reflecting X-rays from some source. What is the source of the X-rays then ? It is an object at the endpoint of its evolution (Cygnus X-3) just next to it. This Circle of Life, described in NASA’s latest press release, provides a new way to study how stars form.

Cygnus X-3's Little Friend: A Stellar Circle of Life captured by Chandra's high-resolution X-ray vision
Cygnus X-3’s Little Friend: A Stellar Circle of Life along with Little Friend captured by Chandra’s high-resolution X-ray vision

Let me explain some basic astronomical terms beforehand :

  • Cygnus X-3 is an object where a compact source is pulling material away from a massive companion star.
  • This gas cloud, dubbed the “Little Friend” in the labelled figure is a “Bok globule”

From the above data, astronomers realised that our ‘Little Friend’ was reflecting X Rays from a nearby system which you can easily guess as Cygnus X-3! And how did we prove it? (you cannot guess in science after all ! you gotta justify it!) both were found to have same cycle of X-rays we received. You might have heard about the famous saying in 2012! that the world would be destroyed! Such was the prediction because some scientists calculated the death of Sun in that year! When a Sun dies, we find such X-ray binaries consisting of a compact object and a massive companion revolving about each other.

The properties of Cygnus X-3 and its proximity to the Little Friend give an opportunity to make a precise distance measurement – something that is often very difficult in astronomy. Since the early 1970s, astronomers have observed a regular time variation in the X-rays received from Cygnus X-3. The Little Friend, acting as an X-ray mirror, shows the same variation, but slightly delayed because the path the reflected X-rays take is longer than a straight line from Cygnus X-3 to Earth. By measuring the delay time in the periodic variation between Cygnus X-3 and the Little Friend, astronomers were able to calculate the distance from Earth to Cygnus X-3 of about 24,000 light years

The position of Cygnus X-3 is surprising because it contains a massive, short-lived star, scientists propose it might have originated in a region of the Galaxy where stars are still likely to be forming. To provide a possible explanation for so different a position, the researchers suggest that the supernova explosion that formed either the black hole or neutron star in Cygnus X-3 kicked it away from its original birthplace. Can you guess at what speed it might have travelled away (and maybe still travelling!)? Calculated to be between 400,000 and 2 million miles per hour! A more detailed explanation is available in the following research paper of NASA.

Hence the two major things could be concluded from the data: the distance of Cygnus X-3 and Supernova explosions. Theories are being proposed around the birth of Stars fondly called the “Stellar Nurseries” and would unravel many more mysteries in this infinite universe!

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