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Runaway Stars Act Like Massive Star Ships that Leave Behind a Bow Shock

First Posted: Jan 06, 2016 09:16 AM EST
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Runaway stars may actually leave "footprints" behind them in space. Scientists have found that as some speedy, massive stars plow through space, they can cause material to stack up in front of them in the same way that water piles up ahead of a ship, and then leave trails behind them.

"Some stars get the boot when their companion star explodes in a supernova, and others can get kicked out of crowded star clusters," said William Chick, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The gravitational boost increases a star's speed relative to other stars."

Our own sun is strolling through our Milky Way galaxy at a moderate pace. It's not clear whether our sun creates similar footprints, called a bow shock. By comparison, a massive star with a stunning bow shock called Zeta Ophiuchi is traveling around the galaxy faster than our sun at 54,000 mph relative to its surroundings.

Both the speed of stars moving through space and their mass contribute to the size and shapes of their bow shocks. The more massive a star, the more material it sheds in high-speed winds Zeta Oph, in particular, has supersonic winds that slam into the material in front of it.

The result of this movement is a pile-up of material that glows. The arc-shaped material heats up and shines with infrared light. The infrared light is assigned the color red in the many pictures of bow shocks captured by Spitzer telescope and WISE mission.

But what can this bow shock be used for?

"We are using the bow shocks to find massive and/or runaway stars," said Henry "Chip Kobulnicky, one of the researchers. "The bow shocks are new laboratories for studying massive stars and answering questions about the fat and evolution of these stars."

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