Expert Voices

Real shooting stars exist, but they aren't the streaks you see in a clear night sky

Some stars travel at high speeds through the universe and sometimes leave spectacular clouds of dust and gas in their wake.
Some stars travel at high speeds through the universe and sometimes leave spectacular clouds of dust and gas in their wake. (Image credit: NASA, ESA and R. Sahai (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory), CC BY)

This article was originally published at The Conversation. (opens in new tab) The publication contributed the article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Idan Ginsburg (opens in new tab), Academic Faculty in Physics & Astronomy, Georgia State University

"I see thy glory like a shooting star."

So says the Earl of Salisbury as he ruminates about the future in Shakespeare's "Richard II."

Shooting stars — such as those produced by the Leonid meteor shower depicted in this print from 1889 — are beautiful, but they have nothing to do with real stars. (Image credit: Adolf Vollmy/WikimediaCommons)

During the English Renaissance, people believed shooting stars were luminaries falling from the heavens and harbingers of calamity (opens in new tab). But by the end of the 19th century, scientists had established (opens in new tab) the truth to be far more mundane. What today are commonly called shooting or falling stars (opens in new tab) are simply small pieces of rock or dust that quickly burn up upon entering Earth’s atmosphere.

But nature has a surprise for you — shooting stars really do exist.

I am an astrophysicist (opens in new tab) who studies celestial mechanics (opens in new tab) — how objects like stars, planets and galaxies move.

From 2005 to 2014, a monumental observing program (opens in new tab) incorporating the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (opens in new tab) and telescopes at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (opens in new tab) confirmed a new class of stars that move with such incredible speed that they can escape the gravity of their home galaxies.

Astronomers are just beginning to understand these real-life shooting stars — called hypervelocity stars (opens in new tab) — that zoom through the cosmos at millions of miles per hour.

Spinning stars and slingshots

The story of hypervelocity stars begins in 1988, when Jack Gilbert Hills, a theoretician at Los Alamos National Labs (opens in new tab), had an inspired idea: What would happen if a binary star system — that is, two stars that are gravitationally bound to each other and orbit a common center of mass — traveled near the massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way? Hills calculated (opens in new tab) that the tidal force (opens in new tab) of the black hole could rend the binary system in two.

Imagine two ice skaters holding hands and spinning around until they all of a sudden let go. The two skaters will fly away from each other. Similarly, when two stars in a binary system are wrenched apart by a close encounter with a black hole, they will fly apart. In such an encounter one star might gain enough energy to be slingshotted out of the galaxy entirely.

Astronomers now know that this is how hypervelocity stars are born.

A hypervelocity star, HE 0437-5439, was thrown from the center of the Milky Way and is on a one-way trip out of the galaxy. (Image credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI), CC BY)

Theory, observations and simulations

After the publication of Hills' prescient paper, the astronomy community considered hypervelocity stars an intriguing possibility, albeit one without observational evidence. That changed in 2005.

While observing stars in the Milky Way's halo (opens in new tab), a team of researchers using the MMT Observatory (opens in new tab) in Arizona came across something most unexpected. They observed a star escaping the Milky Way at nearly 2 million mph (3.2 million kph). This was HVS1 (opens in new tab), the first known hypervelocity star.

Observations tell part of the story, but to help answer other questions — such as what happens to the companion after it separates from the hypervelocity star — my adviser and I turned to computer simulations. Our models predict that the other star in the former pair is often left orbiting the black hole (opens in new tab) in much the same fashion as the Earth orbits the sun.

Simulations use the laws of physics to calculate the orbits and trajectories of stars, including hypervelocity stars. (Image credit: ESO/L. Calçada/spaceengine.org)

Another exciting result from these modeling efforts was the discovery that sometimes the two stars can crash into each other (opens in new tab). When this happens, the stars may coalesce into one very massive star.

Planets might also be flung out of the galaxy at stupefying speeds. (Image credit: David A. Aguilar/CfA, CC BY-ND)

If you were wondering what might befall a planet orbiting one of these stars, we modeled that too. In a short paper from 2012 (opens in new tab), my colleagues and I showed that the black hole in the center of our galaxy can blast planets out of the Milky Way at nearly 5% the speed of light.

As of today, no hypervelocity planets have been detected, but they very well might be out there (opens in new tab), waiting for some happy astronomers to chance upon them.

Not all fast stars leave the galaxy

Utilizing data from the Gaia spacecraft, launched in 2013, my colleagues and I discovered that some of the stars that the astronomy community had previously considered "hypervelocity stars" are in fact likely bound to the Milky Way galaxy (opens in new tab).

While this result may sound disappointing, it actually reveals two critical points. First, there are different mechanisms to accelerate stars to high speeds. Today astronomers know of thousands of speedy stars (opens in new tab). However, just because a star is moving fast does not necessarily make it a hypervelocity star unbound from the Milky Way. Second, true hypervelocity stars that are escaping the Milky Way may be rarer than previously thought.

Data from both ground- and space-based telescopes like Gaia help astronomers learn more about all types of high-velocity stars, including hypervelocity stars. (Image credit: SA, CC BY)

The future is bright and fast

I find it beautiful that true shooting stars exist. It's equally amazing that studying their trajectories and velocities can help answer some of the foremost questions in science today.

For instance, hypervelocity stars could offer clues to the nature and distribution of dark matter (opens in new tab) in the universe. Hypervelocity stars may also be the key to answering whether there is more than one black hole (opens in new tab) at the center of the galaxy.

My students are using NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite to search for planets around these blisteringly fast stars. The discovery of even one planet around a hypervelocity star will forever change ideas of planetary formation and survivability.

These stars are speedy, but slowly they are shedding light on nature's secrets. While you may not be able to see a real shooting star with your own eyes, you certainly can make a wish upon one.

This article is republished from The Conversation (opens in new tab) under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article (opens in new tab).

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Academic Faculty in Physics & Astronomy, Georgia State University