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Astronomers’ binary star discovery is top performer on NASA Visualisation Explorer app

Published: 6 March 2018
LMC P3 (circled) is the first gamma-ray binary discovered in another galaxy and is the most luminous known in gamma rays, X-rays, radio waves and visible light. Credit: NOAO/CTIO/MCELS, DSS

A highly luminous source of gamma rays, discovered in a collaboration including an astronomer from the University of Southampton, has attracted more than three quarters of a million views in the online NASA Visualisation Explorer series.

The dual star system, the most luminous known gamma-ray emitting binary, was found by an international team of scientists in late 2016 and has drawn in thousands of weekly viewers to the NASA website and app ever since. This makes it the space agency’s best performing visualisation of the past financial year.

Professor Malcolm Coe, from Southampton’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, coordinated outputs from one of several international telescopes in the five-year project, helping the collaboration combine observations “like pieces of a jigsaw” to explain the source of the unexpected flood of gamma rays. Specifically, Malcolm obtained data from telescopes at the South African Astronomical Observatory – an organisation with which the University has a long-standing partnership.

The team discovered the highly luminous gamma ray binary in a nearby galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud. The system, named LMC P3, contains a massive star and a dead neutron star, the remains of a supernova explosion. In these gamma ray binaries, violent winds from the two stars collide to accelerate electrons to near the speed of light and boost optical and ultraviolet photons to gamma ray levels.

“We knew this phenomenon existed but what we found was the most luminous binary ever identified,” Malcolm says. “It is quite an amazing discovery – both stars are producing very strong stellar winds that combine to generate a large amount of radiation strewn across the electromagnetic spectrum. In comparison, our Sun is a very tame star. These are very violent conditions where stars are interacting in a dramatic way.

“Initially, we could see the gamma radiation but didn’t know what was producing it. The collaboration brought together observations and expertise from around the world like a jigsaw puzzle, with each academic contributing a different piece. This is research at the extreme edge of physics and I’m really pleased to see it having such a long-lived impact with the public. I’m simply blown away by these numbers.”

The international team that discovered the binary system is coordinated by lead investigator Robin Corbet from NASA and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. LMC P3 was found 163,000 light years away at the centre of the expanding cloud of debris from a supernova explosion. Its large star is 25 to 40 times the mass of our Sun and is orbited every 10.3 days by the neutron star. Observations of the changing emissions in the system will help scientists understand gamma ray processes that take place in many different types of objects.

Find out more about LMC P3 and other scientific discoveries across the universe through the NASA Virtualisation Explorer.

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