Binary Star

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A binary star is a star system which consists of two stars orbiting around their common center of mass. The brighter star is called the primary and the other is the secondary. Research between the early 1800s and today suggests that many stars are part of either binary star systems or star systems with more than two stars, called multiple star systems. The term double star may be used synonymously with binary star, but more generally, a double star may be either a binary star or an optical double star which consists of two stars with no physical connection but which appear close together in the sky as seen from the Earth.

In the science of astronomy, the term binary star is generally restricted to pairs of stars which revolve around a common centre of mass. Binary stars which can be resolved with a telescope or interferometric methods are known as visual binaries. Most of the known visual binary stars have not completed one whole revolution, but are observed to have travelled along a curved path or a partial arc. Binary stars are often detected optically, in which case they are called visual binaries. Many visual binaries have long orbital periods of several centuries or millennia and therefore have orbits which are uncertain or poorly known. They may also be detected by indirect techniques, such as spectroscopy.

If the orbits of components in binary star systems are close enough they can gravitationally distort their mutual outer stellar atmospheres. In some cases, these close binary systems can exchange mass, which may bring their evolution to stages that single stars cannot attain. Examples of binaries are Algol (an eclipsing binary), Sirius, and Cygnus X-1. Binary stars are also common as the nuclei of many planetary nebulae, and are the progenitors of both novae and type Ia supernovae.

John Michell was the first to suggest that double stars might be physically attached to each other when he argued in 1767 that the probability that a double star was due to a chance alignment was small. William Herschel began observing double stars in 1779 and soon thereafter published catalogs of about 700 double stars. By 1803, he had observed changes in the relative positions in a number of double stars over the course of 25 years, and concluded that they must be binary systems.