What happens when stars collide? We’re about to find out

The chances are you haven’t heard of VFTS 352. It’s a double star system 160,000 light years away in the Tarantula Nebula. That’s around 940,580,086,599,745,700 miles, if you refuse to deal in anything other than imperial units. Our fastest space vessel, New Horizons, goes at around 36,373 miles per hour, which is fast, but it would still take it around 2,951,974,156 years to reach the Tarantula Nebula.

What happens when stars collide? We're about to find out

Ordinarily, that would be cause of some sadness, but our distance from VFTS 352 is actually a relief on this occasion. You see, two stars are touching each other, and while it’s not necessarily true to say the results “won’t be pretty”, they certainly won’t be good for anyone.     

If it keeps spinning rapidly, it might end its life in one of the most energetic explosions in the universe, known as a long-duration gamma-ray burst,” explained Hugues Sana from the University of Leuven.

Right, that doesn’t sound too good. Let’s ask a theoretical astrophysicist, Selma de Mink from the University of Amsterdam, for a second opinion.

“If the stars are mixed well enough, they both remain compact and the VFTS 352 system may avoid merging…”

Okay, that sounds alright.

“…This would lead the objects down a new evolutionary path that is completely different from classic stellar evolution predictions. In the case of VFTS 352, the components would likely end their lives in supernova explosions, forming a close binary system of black holes. Such a remarkable object would be an intense source of gravitational waves.”double_black_hole


So how has it come to this? The two stars that compose VFTS 352 are massive and hot, and orbit each other just over once an Earth-day. Between them, they’re around 57 times the mass of the sun, with surface temperatures of over 40,000 degrees. Both stars are practically the same size, meaning neither is sucking material from the other – in fact a “bridge” has formed between the two stars.

We don’t know for sure which of the two outcomes will occur – or if something completely unexpected will happen. But whatever happens next, VFTS 352 has given us pretty incredible insights into how star systems can evolve. Still, this remains one of those rare occasions when we can be happy at just how remote certain segments of the universe are.

Just how big is the solar system? This scale model in the Black Rock Desert gives you some idea.

Image: ESO/L. Calcada, Hubble ESA

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