Cosmic Cannibalism: Spider Stars

With a tendency to devour their husbands, Red-backs and Black Widow spiders are notorious for their turbulent and violent love. Astronomers have spotted similar behavior in the cosmos amongst binary systems, or two stars gravitationally bound in orbit around a central mass, containing rapidly spinning neutron stars, also known as pulsars.

Diagram of pulsar|Photo courtesy of Lumen Learning

Spider stars are neutron stars, or the collapsed cores of massive supergiant stars, that rotate once approximately every 30 milliseconds, with flashes coming from each rotation. 

Spider star next to young stars|Photo courtesy of NASA

Neutron stars tend to tear material off binary orbits in close proximity to  them, and use the force from the now falling material to achieve a pulsar speed of around 70,000 kilometers per second. Spider stars are notably exceptional because of how their close orbit affects their binary neighbors. Due to their close proximity to stars around them, they violently devour immense amounts of material from the surface of neighboring stars, presenting an insatiable hunger for it’s companions’ surfaces, similar to a spider and their mates.

Recently, astronomers have discovered three Black Widow stars, one new Red-back star, and one spider-star scientists have doubtfully classified as a Red-back in the Milky Way galaxy. This peculiar spider star is said to be a “crossbreed” between Red-backs and Black Widows.

When a spider star rips away enough material from the adjacent star in their binary system to reduce themselves to around one tenth of a solar mass, they are classified as black-widow spider stars. Due to the size Black-Widows leave their neighboring star in, they are unable, contrary to their Red-back counterparts, to pass Earth; Black-Widows are never eclipsed. Red-backs on the other hand are left with more than one tenth of a solar mass, enabling them to embark on such a journey, temporarily causing ellipses. 

Spider star tearing at the surface of the nearby star in its binary system (spider star at left, companion star at right)|Photo courtesy of Live Science

The new uncategorized spider star’s companion passes Earth, occasionally eclipsing its pulsing light. The peculiarity is in its  mass. With a mass of .055 solar masses, the star has the physical properties of a Spider-back, but behaves like a Red-back. 

Researchers have classified it as a Red-back for now, due to its un-Black Widow-like ability to pass by the Earth. 

Among many other cosmic oddities, this bizarre binary system’s behavior remains a mystery.  

Written by Roaa Alkhawaja

Co-Editor in Chief and Senior, Ro'aa Alkhawaja, loves herself a good week of reading, baking, tea-drinking, and eating more Nutella sandwiches than should be humanly possible.

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