Fast-moving star duo is heading out of the Milky Way

Researchers are baffled as to what sent them soaring

illustration of binary star PB 3877

ESCAPE ARTIST  Binary star PB 3877 (illustrated) is hurtling through the outer reaches of the galaxy and astronomers aren’t sure how it got out there.

Thorsten Brand

Something catapulted a pair of stars from the outer rim of our galaxy, but astronomers aren’t sure what. A binary star known as PB 3877 is rocketing away at about 2 million kilometers per hour — possibly fast enough to escape the galaxy’s gravitational pull — and all the usual explanations for such speedy stars fall short. Astrophysicist Péter Németh of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and colleagues report the discovery in the April 10 Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Many galactic escapees get kicked out after a close brush with the supermassive black hole in the Milky Way’s center. But PB 3877, first noticed in 2011 and currently about 18,000 light-years away in the constellation Coma Berenices, has been nowhere near that behemoth. A supernova could be responsible; it has happened before (SN Online: 3/5/15). But PB 3877 is two stars traveling together. A supernova would have torn the two apart. Németh and colleagues propose that the duo may be left over from a smashup between the Milky Way and a smaller galaxy. If that’s the case, then there might be others like PB 3877 lurking in the galactic outskirts. 

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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