NASA's SOFIA flying telescope spots eclipse of odd binary star

watching a dance between two stars orbiting each other as they approach the moment of eclipse, allowing astronomers to study how the two exchange stardust.

NASA's flying telescope SOFIA

observed the binary star R Aquarii, located in the constellation Aquarius some 720 light-years away from Earth, since 2018, when the smaller of the two stars in the  system started eclipsing the brighter star from the perspective of Earth

Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy

smaller of the two stars is a white dwarf, a dim, cooling remnant of a star that has run out of fuel. The brighter of the two stars in the R Aquarii binary is a type of pulsating star called a Mira variable

Astronomers believe that

the binary star was not only going through the eclipse but also nearing its periastron, the moment when the two bodies are at their shortest distance from each other.

SOFIA turned its gaze to R Aquarii

which occurs every 43.6 Earth years as the white dwarf completes one orbit around the larger star, enabled SOFIA to observe how the two stars exchange dust, a phenomenon that is otherwise obscured by the glow of the larger star.

Combination of these two events

Astronomers know that stardust escapes from the larger star and gets accreted by the white dwarf, but they rarely get the chance to see it with their own eyes.

Stardust

changes as the distance between them shifts during their elliptical orbits. Around periastron — which, luckily for the astronomers, coincides with the eclipse — the white dwarf is sucking in the most dust from the brighter star.

Stardust

unknown information about the inner workings of not just the R Aquarii binary star system but also of millions of other similar binaries that are scattered across our Milky Way galaxy, the statement said.

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