Astronomers see white dwarf ‘switch on and off’ for the first time

An artist’s impression example of the white dwarf MV Lyrae, accreting as it draws in material from a companion star. (Credits: PA)

A planet-hunting satellite has allowed astronomers to see a white dwarf abruptly switching on and off for the first time.

White dwarfs are what most stars become after they have burned off the hydrogen that fuels them.

They are around the size of the Earth, but have a mass closer to that of the Sun.
The white dwarf observed by researchers is known to be accreting, or feeding, from an orbiting companion star.

It was seen to lose brightness in 30 minutes, a process only previously seen to occur in accreting white dwarfs over a period of several days to months.

Because the brightness of an accreting white dwarf is affected by the amount of surrounding material it feeds on, the researchers suggest something is interfering with its food supply.

The Durham University researchers hope the discovery will help them learn more about the physics behind accretion – where objects like black holes, white dwarfs and neutron stars feed on surrounding material from neighbouring stars.

Using Nasa’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess) to observe the phenomenon in the white dwarf binary system, TW Pictoris, which is found about 1,400 light years from Earth.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched in 2018 (Credits: PA)

TW Pictoris consists of a white dwarf that feeds from a surrounding accretion disc fuelled by hydrogen and helium from its smaller companion star.

As the white dwarf eats – or accretes – it becomes brighter. The satellite enabled the team to see abrupt falls and rises in brightness never before seen in an accreting white dwarf on such short timescales.

Researchers believe what they are witnessing could be reconfigurations of the white dwarf’s surface magnetic field.

During the “on” mode, when the brightness is high, the white dwarf feeds off the accretion disc as it normally would.

Suddenly and abruptly the system turns “off” and its brightness plummets, the astronomers observed.

A figure showing how TESS observations reveal that TW Pictoris, a relatively bright binary system, suddenly and abruptly fades in less than 30 minutes. (Credits: PA)

Researchers say that when this happens the magnetic field is spinning so fast that a barrier stops the fuel from the accretion disc constantly falling on to the white dwarf.

During this phase the amount of fuel the white dwarf is able to feed on is being regulated through a process called magnetic gating.

Lead author Dr Simone Scaringi, in the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy at Durham University, said: “The brightness variations seen in accreting white dwarfs are generally relatively slow, occurring on timescales of days to months.

‘To see the brightness of TW Pictoris plummet in 30 minutes is, in itself, extraordinary as it has never been seen in other accreting white dwarfs and is totally unexpected from our understanding of how these systems are supposed to feed through the accretion disc.

‘It appears to be switching on and off.

‘This really is a previously unrecognised phenomenon and because we can draw comparisons with similar behaviour in the much smaller neutron stars it could be an important step in helping us to better understand the process of how other accreting objects feed on the material that surrounds them and the important role of magnetic fields in this process.’

The research, published in Nature Astronomy, was funded in the UK by Durham University.

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