Triple star system found via Planet Hunters TESS
Exciting news alert! The Planet Hunters TESS community has helped identify another exciting system, this time comprised of zero planets and three stars. ‘Why is this a Planet Hunters TESS discovery?’ you may ask. Well, thirty thousand pairs of eyes visually looking at data collected by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite leads to many exciting discoveries- including asteroids, supernova, eclipsing binaries and multi-stellar systems – all of which have nothing to do with planets at all but are equally exciting! Our latest discovery is now available at https://arxiv.org/abs/2202.06964.
Why is TIC 470710327 interesting?
This latest discovery consists of three very massive stars (one of which is around 15 times more massive than our own Sun) orbiting around one another very rapidly – with two of the stars taking 1.1 days to orbit around one another and a third taking 52 days to orbit around the first two. While triple star systems are not rare, this one stands out due to the 52 day orbit star being more massive than the combined mass of the other two. This poses interesting questions regarding how this system could have formed. Did the two stars capture the third? Did all stars form much further out and spiral in towards one another to give us the compact configuration we see now?
The future evolution of this system is equally interesting. Let’s look at what will happen to this system over the next couple millions of years. So this is where the system is now, two stars in an eclipsing binary with a third (more massive) star moving around it:
Now, as that outer star (purple one) continues to evolve its radius will expand, and it will likely expand in size so much that it will start to transfer mass over to the inner binary:
Which could mean that the two binary stars (the blue and yellow ones) could merge to become one star:
which will transform that triple systems that we had at the start into a binary (two star) system. However, eventually the outer star (the purple one) will run out of fuel and end its life as a supernova (the largest explosions in the Universe). The remnant of which is an extremely small and dense core of a star (called a neutron star).
Once the other star (the one that started off as two stars that merged into a single star) has run out of hydrogen to burn in its core, it will also start to expand in size. This will likely result in mass being moved over from the star (green) to the neutron star (black):
This brings us to the final and exciting stage in the evolution of this system! The former binary system (green) will also likely end its life by undergoing supernova and becoming a neutron star, which would leave us with a neutron-neutron star binary, which could eventually merge to cause a gravitational wave! Alternatively, the (first) neutron star could be completely engulfed by the other star, resulting in an exotic object called a Thorn-Zytkow object!! Either way, there’s an exciting future ahead of this system so stay tuned for the next couple of millions of years!
How did we study TIC 470710327?
Although this system has nothing to do with planets, many of the same tools and techniques used to characterise planets can also be applied to studying stars. For example, while planets show transit timing variations – slight delays in the expected times of transits due to other planets – stellar binary systems show the same effect when there is a third star nearby orbiting the two of them. Similarly, just as we can measure the masses of planets by looking at the doppler wobble in the host stars, we can study the masses of stars by studying their Doppler wobbles. As stars are much more massive, this effect is larger and therefore often easier to measure. Excitingly, we were able to study both of these effects in this new system in order to study its puzzling configuration.
Last but not least, I want to say a massive thanks to all of the Planet (and Star) Hunters taking part in the Planet Hunters TESS project! This is one of many interesting stellar systems that have been identified and I look forward to seeing what we find in the future. A special thanks to Safaa Alhassan, Elisabeth M. L. Baeten, Frank Barnet, Stewart. J. Bean, Mikael Bernau, David M. Bundy, Marco Z. Di Fraia, Francis M. Emralino, Brian L. Goodwin, Pete Hermes, Tony Hoffman, Marc Huten, Roman Janíček, Sam Lee, Michele T. Mazzucato, David J. Rogers, Michael P. Rout, Johann Sejpka, Christopher Tanner, Ivan A. Terentev and David Urvoy who are now coauthors of the discovery paper.