Regulus – Just when you think you know a star

By Doug on June 25, 2008 at 1:13 am | In Astrophysics, Blog Posts | 1 Comment

Looking out at the night sky, it is easy to believe that we’ve learned everything there is to know about the brightest stars. Fortunately, they keep surprising us! A delightful paper has just appeared on the astro-ph preprint server which combines many elements of a great story.

Regulus is the 22nd brightest star in the sky to the naked-eye. Since it lies along the path followed by the Sun, Moon and planets (called the “ecliptic”), bright planets frequently pass close to the line of sight to this majestic star. In fact, it is so close to the ecliptic that the Sun passes within a half degree of it every August. (Don’t go looking for this event visually! If you want to see how close, check out the movie from the SOHO satellite here. The brightest object – besides the Sun! – is Saturn. Regulus pops out from behind the occulting disk right at the end of the MPEG.)

I first became more closely acquainted with Regulus during my postdoctoral fellowship at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, British Columbia (Canada). I would frequently use the 1.2m telescope with its fantastic high-resolution spectrograph. One of the shortcomings of filament bulbs is that there is precious little light emitted at the blue end of the spectrum – if you want to calibrate the pixel-to-pixel sensitivity of your detector, you can’t get enough blue signal without saturating the red end. What to do, what to do … One fine solution is to observe a bright blue star which is rotating so quickly that all of its spectral lines are smeared out over many, many pixels. Enter Regulus! The few spectral lines in its spectrum were already broad hydrogen lines and the rotation rate of over 300 km/sec smeared them out even more. A great star for calibration.

And a very poor one for measuring the line-of-sight (“radial”) velocity using the Doppler shift! In fact, astronomers last studied it for binarity in 1912-1913 – almost a century ago! Many hot stars are far enough away that lines from interstellar gas can be used as reference points for radial velocities. Not so Regulus – it is only 24 parsecs away and there just isn’t enough gas along the line-of-sight to this neighbor of the Sun.

Regulus came back into favor when its shape and the brightness distribution could be measured by a very cool kind of optical instrument called an interferometer. Work by McAlister and collaborators using the CHARA long-baseline optical inteferometer they created on Mount Wilson found that Regulus is rotationally-flattened and it spinning at 86% of the speed at which the surface gas would cease to be bound to the star. They were able to show that it was darker along the equator of the star, too. This high rotation rate was an anomaly for a star that was as old as Regulus (apparently 150 million years – pretty old for a star of this mass) since similar stars seemed to be fast rotators only early in their lifetimes.

So Doug Gies and his collaborators embarked on a new study using modern instrumentation to see if there was any evidence of it orbiting the center-of-mass of a binary system containing it and a hitherto-unknown companion. As a bright star, there was plenty of light available to be dispersed by high-resolution spectrographs. They used several in their study including two “unusual ones” – the Kitt Peak National Observatory Coude Feed Telescope and the Multiple-Telescope Telescope!

Let me briefly describe these two instruments. A Coude room is very high-resolution spectrograph capable of tearing the light from a telescope into very fine shreds of color. It was designed to be “fed” by the 2.1m telescope at Kitt Peak. However, observatories tend to do deep imaging around the time of New Moon (i.e. when the sky is dark) and the 2.1m served a variety of such needs. It was realized that the a smaller telescope could “feed” the spectrograph during these periods and that brighter stars could be observed with that smaller telescope plus Coude spectrograph while the big telescope was busy imaging!

The Multiple-Telescope Telescope at Hard Labor Creek in Georgia is another ingenious system for bright star spectroscopy. It has nine relatively inexpensive 0.33m mirrors which focus onto nine optical fibers which then feed a stable, bench spectrograph. Since it only studies bright stars, the mirror pointings can each be individually-tweaked to center up on the bright star. It uses a cheap alt-azimuth mount and collects as much useful light as a 1.0 telescope for a tiny fraction of the cost of such a large telescope.

So – you are asking – what did Doug Gies and his collaborators find? They found that Regulus was indeed a spectroscopic binary. Once every 40.11 days, the system completes one orbit. Regulus itself has a mass of about 3.4 times that of the Sun. The companion of Regulus is much less massive – only about 0.30 solar masses. Such a small mass object is either a low-mass star or a white dwarf. The latter possibility provides an explanation for Regulus’ rapid rotation! The idea is that the companion was once the more massive member of the pair and when it finished hydrogen burning in its core, it expanded dramatically and started losing mass to Regulus in a manner which “spun it up”. A mass of 0.30 solar masses is very low for a white dwarf – such objects are found only in systems where it is clear that much mass has been transferred.

A final piece of the puzzle fell into place when spectra taken using the far-ultraviolet Spanish satellite MINISAT-01 were re-examined. When the expected contribution from Regulus was removed, light remained in the ultraviolet region of interest – consistent with a white dwarf but not a cool low-mass star. So Regulus joins the list of bright stars in the sky (which includes Sirius and Procyon) having white dwarf companions and proves once again that “three out of every two stars is a binary”!

Their paper has been accepted for publication in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal Letters.

A Spectroscopic Orbit for Regulus
Doug Gies (GSU) et al

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  1. [...] Um estudo mais detalhado da estrela Regulus aponta para a possibilidade de que esta seja orbitada por uma anã branca de massa anormalmente baixa. Vejam este artigo. [...]

    Pingback by Blog de Astronomia do astroPT » Regulus Orbitada por Anã Branca ? — June 30, 2008 #

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