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A scientist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian has announced the discovery that mass in triple star systems takes on the characteristics of recipient stars before mass is actually transferred, which may allow scientists to re-examine previously labeled binary star systems for evidence of a third companion.
"Scientists already knew that the transfer of mass from one star to another is one of the most important processes in astronomy, because it produces events that release tremendous amounts of energy—from Type Ia supernovae to the merger of black holes. I wanted to extend this to understand what happens if one star transfers mass to a pair of stars," said Rosanne Di Stefano, astronomer at CfA. "To do that I had to generalize the familiar process of star-to-star mass flow."
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Di Stefano suggests that the flow of mass is similar to the flow of water through a faucet. "The mass-giving star takes on a tear-drop shape, filling its 'Roche Lobe' and transferring mass through a small region called the L1 point," said Di Stefano. "The Roche Lobe and the L1 point provide a mathematical basis for computing exactly what happens to transferred mass in a binary where both gravity and rotation influence the flow of matter."
While the base of knowledge for binary star systems is broad and growing, our understanding of mass transfer in triple-star systems is more limited. Astronomical observations have established that triple-star systems are common, and even dominant amongst the population of known high-mass stars.
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