One hundred and sixty thousand light years away from us, a pair of young stars are sharing a kiss. The two stars are part of the Tarantula Nebula galaxy and belong to a small class of stars known as over contact binaries. The stars are over forty thousand degrees Celsius, and have a mass over fifty-seven times larger than our sun.
The two stars are so close together, their surfaces are overlapping, making it appear like they’re kissing. According to the European Space Agency (ESO) these stars aren’t vampire stars, a type of binary stars where the smaller star sucks mass from the larger one. Instead, to many scientists’ confusion, these stars are almost identical in size. The centers of the so called “star crossed lovers” are only twelve million kilometers apart, a very small distance when you’re talking about outer space. Because their orbits are so close, the stars are sharing around 30% of their material.
This romantic duo is a first. While over-contact stars have been observed before, this particular binary is the hottest and most massive to ever be observed.
Several scientists are comparing the period these stars are going through to a “honeymoon period”. While they may seem happy and in love right now, the sad fact of the matter is, their relationship may be short lived. Since scientists have never observed over-contact stars on such a large scale, nobody is really certain as to what is going to happen.
Hugues Sana from the University of Leuven in Belgium suggested that the stars might merge to create a giant, rapidly-rotating star. “If [the stars] keeps spinning rapidly, [they] might end [their] life in one of the most energetic explosions in the universe, known as a long-duration gamma-ray burst.” Or as Space.com put it, “[it would create a] incredible cosmic fireworks show.”
The second outcome that has been proposed involves the stars staying intact, kind of. According to Selma De Mink from the University of Amsterdam, the second scenario involves “both [stars] remain[ing] compact”. Eventually, they will turn into supernovas, then finally black holes. If this does happen to be the case, observing such a transformation would be a breakthrough for astrophysicists. The orbiting black holes would probably produce gravitational waves, that, according to Einstein’s theory of gravity, would create ripples in space-time.
While the romantic stars might be doomed, maybe the outcome shouldn’t be seen as sad. Anything that these stars do will be useful for scientists and astronomy junkies alike. Whether the stars merge to become one and produce fireworks on a cosmic scale, or produce ripples in space-time, no one will be disappointed. The thing is, the stars have already (in theory) experienced their fate. Everything that we are observing happened 160 million years ago – that’s millions of years before dinosaurs roamed the earth. Now all we can do – like fans watching a soap opera – is sit back and wait, and see whose predictions come true.