The names of celestial bodies rarely manage to capture the nature of the body they represent. There are some, though, that manage to accurately describe some of the most violent processes in the universe. Nasty 1, for instance, is the name of a particular type of star, much larger than our sun, which behaves in a way that astronomers haven’t witnessed before.
Astronomers first discovered Nasty 1 (or by its catalog name, NaSt1) fifty years ago. But recent photographs captured by Hubble reveal some monstrous truths about an otherwise beautiful star. Nasty 1 is a cannibal star.
A member of the Wolf-Rayet class, Nasty 1 has its inner helium core exposed. Wolf-Rayet stars are massive celestial bodies, much larger than our solar systems Sun. They are intensely active and quickly shed their outer layers (comprised of hydrogen). And though the class itself is nothing new to astronomers, Nasty is.
That’s because Nasty 1 is enveloped in a massive, 2 trillion mile wide disk of cosmic dust rather than a twin-lobed gas envelope coming from either side of the star. It’s this disk-like structure, which is unlike any other gas disks enveloping similar Wolf-Rayet stars that astronomers are intrigued by.
According to Professor Jon Mauerhan, lead author on the paper discussing Nasty’s evolution, this one-of-a-kind disk may be indicative of a two-star system interaction.
Mauerhan and his team’s study was published in this month’s issue of Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and proposes a new model for NaSt’s formation. Unlike other Wolf-Rayet representatives, Nasty may be accompanied by a second star which is actively devouring it and spewing the remaining “stardust” around the binary star system.
In a manner, the companion star may be helping Nasty complete its Wolf-Rayet transformation.
“We were excited to see this disk-like structure because it may be evidence for a Wolf-Rayet star forming from a binary interaction,” professor Mauerhan explains.
Such astronomical events are a rarity, though. The disk of dust surrounding the alleged binary star system can only be a few thousands of years old. What’s better is that it is so close to our home planet: roughly 3,000 light years away.
“So this type of sloppy stellar cannibalism actually makes Nasty 1 a rather fitting nickname,” Mauerhan said.
If the research team is correct and mass exchange in such binary star systems actually occurs, astronomers now have an additional mechanism explaining Wolf-Rayet stars.
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