Wolf-Rayet Star “Nasty 1” Transitional Stage in Evolution of Massive Stars

A very rapidly evolving, supermassive star with a newly formed nebula only a few thousand years old


Space news (supermassive stars: Wolf-Rayet stars; star NaSt1) – 3,000 light-years away on the edge of a pancake-shaped disk of gas moving at 22,000 mph – 

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered new clues concerning a nearby supermassive, rapidly aging star they have nicknamed “Nasty 1”. Designated NaSt1 in astronomy catalogs, “Nasty 1” when first discovered decades ago was identified as a non-typical Wolf-Rayet star with an orbiting disk-like structure. A vast disk estimated to be almost 2 trillion miles wide astronomers now think formed due to a companion star snacking on its outer envelope. Putting NaSt1 in a class of Wolf-Rayet stars astronomers haven’t observed often during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. A star type possibly representing a transition stage in the evolution of supermassive stars. 


“We were excited to see this disk-like structure because it may be evidence for a Wolf-Rayet star-forming from a binary interaction,” said study leader Jon Mauerhan of the University of California, Berkeley. “There are very few examples in the galaxy of this process in action because this phase is short-lived, perhaps lasting only a hundred thousand years, while the timescale over which a resulting disk is visible could be only ten thousand years or less.” 

Study leader Jon Mauerhan of the University of California, Berkley. Credit: University of California, Berkley.

In the case of NaSt1, computer simulations show a supermassive star evolving really fast and swelling as it begins to run out of hydrogen. Its outer hydrogen envelope is loosely bound and is gravitationally stripped from the star- astronomers call this process stellar cannibalism – by a more compact, nearby companion star. In the process the more compact star gains mass, while the more massive star loses its hydrogen envelope, exposing its helium core and eventually becoming a Wolf-Rayet star. 

The mass-transfer model is the favored process for how Wolf-Rayet stars evolve at the moment and considering at least 70 percent of supermassive stars detected, so far, are members of binary star system, this seems logical. Astronomers used to think this type of star could also form when a massive sun ejects its hydrogen envelope. But the direct mass loss model by itself can’t account for the number of Wolf-Rayet stars observed relative to less-evolved supermassive suns in the Milky Way.  


“We’re finding that it is hard to form all the Wolf-Rayet stars we observe by the traditional wind mechanism because the mass loss isn’t as strong as we used to think,” said Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who is a co-author on the new NaSt1 paper. “Mass exchange in binary systems seems to be vital to account for Wolf-Rayet stars and the supernovae they make, and catching binary stars in this short-lived phase will help us understand this process.” 

Co-author of study Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Credit: The University of Arizona.

Astronomers computer models show that the mass-transfer process isn’t always perfectly efficient. Matter can only transfer from NaSt1 at a certain rate, left over material begins orbiting, creating a disk-like structure. 

“That’s what we think is happening in Nasty 1,” Mauerhan said. “We think there is a Wolf-Rayet star buried inside the nebula, and we think the nebula is being created by this mass-transfer process. So this type of sloppy stellar cannibalism actually makes Nasty 1 a rather fitting nickname.” 

Observing Nasty 1 (star NaSt1) through the clock of gas and dust surrounding this star system hasn’t been easy. The intervening disk-like structure even blocks the view of the Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists haven’t been able to measure the distance between the stars, their mass, or the volume of material transferring to the smaller companion star.  

Astronomers have been able to discover a few items concerning the disk-like structure surrounding Nasty 1. Measurements indicate it’s traveling at around 22,000 mph in the outer nebula, a slower speed than recorded in other stars of this type. Scientists think this indicates a much less energetic supernova than was recorded for other events, like Era Carinae. In this case and other similar stars, the gas in the outer nebula has been recorded in the hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. Nasty 1 could be different supernova animal altogether.  

High atop the Cerro Manqui peak at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile the twin the Walter Baade Telescope is the first of the twin 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes to be completed. Credit: Ico.cl

Nasty 1 could also lose its outer envelope of hydrogen intermittently. Previous studies in the infrared light provided clues indicating the existence of a dense pocket of hot gas and dust close to the central stars in the region. More recent observations using the Magellan Telescope located at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile has also detected a bigger pocket of cooler gas and dust possibly indirectly blocking light from these stars. Astronomers think the existence of warm dust in the region implies it formed just recently, perhaps intermittently, as elementally enriched matter from the stellar winds of massive stars collides, mixes, flows away, and cools. Irregular stellar wind strength, the rate at which star NaSt1 loses its outer envelope, could also help explain the observed clumpy structure and gaps noted in the outer regions of the disk.  

Astrophysicists used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to measure the hypersonic winds screaming from each star. Readings showed a scorching hot plasma, indicating colliding stellar winds producing high-energy shockwaves that glow in X-rays. This is consistent with previous data collected on other evolving Wolf-Rayet star systems. We’ll get a better view once the outer hydrogen of Nasty 1’s (star NaSt1) depleted, and the mass-transfer process completes. Eventually, the gas and dust in the lumpy, disk-like structure will dissipate, giving us a clearer view of this mysterious binary star system.   


NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has shown the cosmos is full of objects and events far beyond anything we imagined when we first started the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Credit: NASA/Chandra

Nasty 1’s still evolving!

“What evolutionary path the star will take is uncertain, but it will definitely not be boring,” said Mauerhan. “Nasty 1 could evolve into another Eta Carinae-type system. To make that transformation, the mass-gaining companion star could experience a giant eruption because of some instability related to the acquiring of matter from the newly formed Wolf-Rayet. Or, the Wolf-Rayet could explode as a supernova. A stellar merger is another potential outcome, depending on the orbital evolution of the system. The future could be full of all kinds of exotic possibilities depending on whether it blows up or how long the mass transfer occurs, and how long it lives after the mass transfer ceases.” 

Astronomers continue to study Nasty 1 and its peculiar, unusual disk-like structure looking for clues to explain the mysteries surrounding its origin. 

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The Monster of the Milky Way Comes to Life

Erupting X-ray flares every day, a ten-fold increase in bright flares from previous observations of Sagittarius A

Astronomers believe the ten-fold increase in X-ray flares during the past year could be connected to the passage of a mysterious object designated G2 near the supermassive black hole (Image credit NASA and ESO

Space news (October 01, 2015) – 26,000 light-years from Earth, near the center of the Milky Way

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is part of a new breed of star hunting telescopes.
NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is part of a new breed of star hunting telescopes.

Astrophysicists combining the telescopic talents of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Swift spacecraft, with the European Space Agency’s X-ray Space Observatory XMM-Newton, recently detected an increase in X-ray flares erupting from the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A) at the center of the Milky Way.

NASA's Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer scans the universe looking for gamma ray bursts.
NASA’s Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer scans the universe looking for gamma ray bursts.

By analyzing data collected during extensive periods of monitoring by all three spacecraft, space scientists determined the Monster of the Milky Way – the supermassive black hole at the center with more than 4 million times the mass of Sol– has been more active during the past 15 years than first thought. 

An artists impression of the ESO's Newton XMM-Newton telescope.
An artists impression of the ESO’s Newton XMM-Newton telescope.

Erupting a bright X-ray flare every ten days, the Monster of the Milky Way has been eating hot gas falling into its gravity pool. Even more interesting, Sagittarius A during the past year has been erupting ten times as much, producing a bright X-ray flare every day. A discovery that has astrophysicists going over the data looking for a reason for the sudden increase. 

“For several years, we’ve been tracking the X-ray emission from Sgr A*. This includes also the close passage of this dusty object” said Gabriele Ponti of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany. “A year or so ago, we thought it had absolutely no effect on Sgr A*, but our new data raise the possibility that that might not be the case.”

The mystery started late in 2013, as G2 passed close to the supermassive black hole. At this time, there wasn’t any apparent change in G2 as it approached Sagittarius A, other than being slightly stretched by the gravity pool of the black hole.

Originally astronomers thought G2 was a stretched cloud of gas and dust, but this finding has led scientists to the possibility it could be a dense body embedded in a dusty cocoon. Currently, there’s no consensus among astronomers on the identity of this mysterious object. But the recent ten-fold increase in X-ray flares as G2 passed near the supermassive black hole suggests there could be a connection of some kind. 

“There isn’t universal agreement on what G2 is,” said Mark Morris of the University of California at Los Angeles. “However, the fact that Sgr A* became more active not long after G2 passed by suggests that the matter coming off of G2 might have caused an increase in the black hole’s feeding rate.”

At this point, astronomers don’t know if the increase in X-ray flares from the supermassive black hole is common or unusual in nature. These emissions could be part of the normal life cycle of supermassive black holes and totally unrelated to the passage of G2. The ten-fold increase in X-ray flares could also be due to changing solar winds from nearby massive stars feeding gas and dust into the black hole.

What’s next?

Scientists will keep observing Sagittarius A over the next little while to see what pops up next in this mystery. Hopefully, they can shed some light on the reason the Monster of the Milky Way, suddenly started emitting X-ray flares once a day.  

“It’s too soon to say for sure, but we will be keeping X-ray eyes on Sgr A* in the coming months,” said co-author Barbara De Marco, also of Max Planck. “Hopefully, new observations will tell us whether G2 is responsible for the changed behavior or if the new flaring is just part of how the black hole behaves.”

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