Science

Scientists make sense of pulsating stars using NASA’s TESS satellite

They used NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to obtain the necessary data.

The 60 stars belong to a class of variable stars named after Delta Scuti, a star visible to the human eye in the southern constellation Scutum that was first identified as variable in 1900.

In a new study, by a team including researchers at the University of Birmingham, UK, and the University of Sydney, Australia, a subset of this class has been found that shows much simpler, ordered and understandable pulsation spectra.

"We think that a lot of stars form from big clouds of gas in groups and as time goes by they gradually disperse".

A paper describing the findings, led by Bedding, appears in the May 14 issue of the journal Nature and is now available online. This branch of science, known as asteroseismology, enables astronomers to understand the insides of distant stars similar to how earthquakes are used to decipher the interior structure of our planet.

These stellar pulsations are really not that unusual.

"This definitive identification of pulsation modes opens up a new way by which we can determine the masses, ages and internal structures of these stars", Professor Bedding said.

But there is a common class of stars, such analysis is beyond so far: the so-called Delta-Scuti stars and dwarf Cepheids. Since then, astronomers have identified thousands more like Delta Scuti, many with NASA's Kepler space telescope, another planet-hunting mission that operated from 2009 to 2018.

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The stars speak! Understanding stars, including our own sun, has largely revolved around examining their outsides: the surfaces and surrounding atmospheres we can see. It was in these latter observations that the researchers spotted something unbelievable: a subset of delta Scuti stars that seemed to have regular pulsation patterns. Over periods of time, brightness variations reveal intricate-and often regular-patterns, allowing researchers to stare into the very heart of the massive nuclear furnaces that light the universe. TESS monitors large swaths of the sky for 27 days at a time, taking one full image every 30 minutes with each of its four cameras. While the "incredibly precise data from NASA's TESS mission have allowed us to cut through the noise".

"Asteroseismology is a powerful tool by which we can understand a broad range of stars", Professor Bedding said. We are talking about a field that's called asteroseismology.

Pulsations in the well-behaved Delta Scuti group fall into two major categories, both caused by energy being stored and released in the star. The acoustic waves that bounce around inside the star cause these rhythmic patterns. Others occur as opposite hemispheres alternatively expand and contract. They are between 1.5 and 2.5 times the mass of the Sun.

The asteroseismological data on HD 31901 suggests it's around 150 million years old - supporting the younger age of the stream.

"Delta Scuti stars have been frustrating targets due to their complicated oscillations, so this is a very exciting discovery", said Sarbani Basu, a professor of astronomy at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who studies asteroseismology but was not involved in the study. From the chaos, scientists were able to find an order. The two, 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectrometer and world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics systems. As the stars age, the frequency of the pulsations slows, and they become jumbled with other signals.

How does someone even listen to the beats from a star?

"Stars in space are oriented randomly so it's just a matter of luck which ones happen to be looking in that direction", Professor Bedding said.

"The signals from these stars have been a mystery for over a hundred years", Huber said.



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