Sunday, April 14, 2013

Light Curves for a Lensing White Dwarf System

This chart shows data from NASA's Kepler space telescope, which looks for planets by monitoring changes in the brightness of stars. As planets orbit in front of a star, they block the starlight, causing periodic dips. The plot on the left shows data collected by Kepler for a star called KOI-256, which is a small red dwarf. At first, astronomers thought the dip in starlight was due to a large planet passing in front of the star. But certain clues, such as the sharpness of the dip, indicated it was actually a white dwarf -- the dense, heavy remains of a star that was once like our sun. In fact, in the data shown at left, the white dwarf is passing behind the red dwarf, an event referred to as a secondary eclipse. The change in brightness is a result of the total light of the system dropping.

The plot on the right shows what happens when the white dwarf passes in front of, or transits, the star. The dip in brightness is incredibly subtle because the white dwarf, while just over half as massive as our sun, is only the size of Earth, much smaller than the red dwarf star. The blue line shows what would be expected given the size of the white dwarf. The red line reveals what was actually observed: the mass of the white dwarf is so great, that its gravity bent and magnified the light of the red star. Because the star's light was magnified, the transiting white dwarf blocked an even smaller fraction of the total starlight than it would have without the distortion. This effect, called gravitational lensing, allowed the researchers to precisely measure the mass of the white dwarf.

Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Note: For more information, see Gravity-Bending Find Leads to Kepler Meeting Einstein; also, PIA16885: Dead Star Warps Light of Red Star (Artist's Animation).

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