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Scientists spot star flung across our galaxy at insane speeds

Published Jul 15th, 2020 9:10PM EDT
space news
Image: Peter Komka/MTI via AP

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  • Researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope identified a star moving at truly incredible speeds.
  • The white dwarf is thought to have partially exploded, sending the remaining material of the star flying at incredibly high speeds.
  • The star’s speed is estimated at just shy of 560,000 miles per hour.

Our Sun is a star with a relatively easy life. It’s kind of been hanging out in our little cosmic neighborhood for several billion years, just doing what it does. Astronomers have spotted a white dwarf star that hasn’t had things so easy. In fact, it appears to have experienced what can only be described as a “partial supernova,” which caused it to be flung violently across our home galaxy.

Researchers made the discovery, which was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, thanks in part to the fact that the star’s composition appears quite different from other white dwarf stars.

The star in question, which is named SDSS J1240+6710 might not have a particularly catchy name, but it more than makes up for that shortcoming with an absolutely incredible life story. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, researchers have discovered that the star is littered with elements that signify it did experience a supernova but wasn’t completely destroyed by it.

Instead, the white dwarf apparently ran out of the combustible fuel it would have burnt up in a supernova explosion and instead of being obliterated, the bulk of its mass was tossed like a stellar softball across the Milky Way. The star is only 40% as massive as our own Sun, which is a big clue that it experienced a half-hearted stellar explosion.

So, just how fast can a star move when half of it goes supernova? Based on what scientists can tell from Hubble observations, the white dwarf appears to be moving at a speed of nearly 560,000 miles per hour. That’s one speedy star, and while the Milky Way is large enough that it hasn’t broken free of our cosmic neighborhood, it’s definitely a candidate to potentially escape at some point in the distant future.

Astronomers are curious about the events that led up to the star’s ejection from its previous location, but they’ve found it difficult to paint a clear picture of what may have happened. The explosion would have done a good job of covering up any evidence of what happened, and the researchers can only assume that whatever kind of event took place, it was a supernova like nothing on record.

“We are now discovering that there are different types of white dwarf that survive supernovae under different conditions and using the compositions, masses and velocities that they have, we can figure out what type of supernova they have undergone,” Boris Gaensicke, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “There is clearly a whole zoo [of supernovae] out there. Studying the survivors of supernovae in our Milky Way will help us to understand the myriads of supernovae that we see going off in other galaxies.”