Astronomers use bow waves to locate stars on the run

Further study may help researchers uncover the origins of these escaped stars, and also determine their fate.
By Brooks Hays   |   Jan. 6, 2016 at 12:06 PM

KISSIMMEE, Fla., Jan. 6 (UPI) -- Bow waves are waves that move out in front of an object moving through gas or liquid.

They're named for the bow, or front, of a ship, which creates V-shaped waves that propagate outward as the vessel moves through the water. Ducks swimming across a pond make them, too. So do stars.

Recently, astronomers scanned the Milky Way looking for bow waves in an effort to locate runaway stars. They found a lot.

Using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, researchers at the University of Wyoming were able to find dozens of bow waves -- or bow shocks as they're often called when observed in the cosmos -- created by stars moving through space at high speeds.

"Some stars get the boot when their companion star explodes in a supernova, and others can get kicked out of crowded star clusters," researcher William Chick, an astronomer at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, explained during a presentation at this week's American Astronomical Society meeting -- the 227th -- in Kissimmee, Fla. "The gravitational boost increases a star's speed relative to other stars."

Chick and his colleagues first used archival data from Spitzer and WISE to survey roughly one-third of the Milky Way. They found 200 potential bow waves. The team then used the Wyoming Infrared Observatory to follow up and study 80 of the candidates in more detail.

"We took a look at our arc-shaped objects and tried to find stars present in the center of each image," Chick said. "We were surprised to discover that over 95 percent of these stars were in fact hot massive stars, as we'd predicted."

Further study may help researchers uncover the origins of these escaped stars, and also determine their fates -- whether they'll explode in supernovas as they're weathered by solar headwinds or become black holes.

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