Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2022 February 5
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Symbiotic R Aquarii
Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. Montez et al.; Optical: Data: NASA/ESA/STScI, Processing: Judy Schmidt (CC BY-NC-SA)

Explanation: Variable star R Aquarii is actually an interacting binary star system, two stars that seem to have a close symbiotic relationship. Centered in this space-based optical/x-ray composite image it lies about 710 light years away. The intriguing system consists of a cool red giant star and hot, dense white dwarf star in mutual orbit around their common center of mass. With binoculars you can watch as R Aquarii steadily changes its brightness over the course of a year or so. The binary system's visible light is dominated by the red giant, itself a Mira-type long period variable star. But material in the cool giant star's extended envelope is pulled by gravity onto the surface of the smaller, denser white dwarf, eventually triggering a thermonuclear explosion, blasting material into space. Astronomers have seen such outbursts over recent decades. Evidence for much older outbursts is seen in these spectacular structures spanning almost a light-year as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope (in red and blue). Data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory (in purple) shows the X-ray glow from shock waves created as a jet from the white dwarf strikes surrounding material.

Tomorrow's picture: our fair planet

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (UMCP)
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