Press Release

Astronomers Measure Mass of a Single Star – First Since the Sun

By SpaceRef Editor
July 15, 2004
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Astronomers Measure Mass of a Single Star – First Since the Sun

Astronomers have directly measured the mass of a single star — the
first time such a feat has been accomplished for any solitary star other
than our own Sun.

The measurement has been done on a small red star located some 1,800
light-years from Earth. Knowing the masses of stars is important in
understanding stellar evolution.

Until now, scientists could only determine the masses of stars that are
members of binary-star systems by applying Newton’s laws of gravity to
measurements of the stars’ orbits around their center of gravity.

The new measurement used Einstein’s theory of relativity, combined with
a large-scale program using ground-based telescopes, and the exquisite
resolution of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

The dim red star first caught astronomers’ attention in 1993, when it
passed directly in front of a much more distant star, producing a
phenomenon called gravitational microlensing. Microlensing, which was
predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, occurs because of
the warping of space around a massive object such as a star. The warped
space acts like a lens, focusing and magnifying the light of the
background star. The background star thus appears to brighten suddenly,
as seen from Earth, during the brief interval when the two stars are
precisely lined up.

There have been several large-scale searches for microlensing events,
including the Massive Compact Halo Objects (MACHO) survey. Using a
telescope in Australia, the MACHO survey team looked in the direction of
the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way.
Astronomers monitored the brightness levels of millions of stars for
several years, searching for a few microlensing events.

In most cases, the transiting star is much fainter than the background
star. But the light from one of the events discovered in 1993, dubbed
MACHO-LMC-5, didn’t just brighten. Changes in its color suggested that
the background star and the lensing star were of similar brightness.
This raised the possibility that the two stars could be observed
separately, if astronomers waited a few years to give the foreground
star time to move away from its perfect alignment with the background

Ground-based telescopes, however, could not resolve the stars as two
separate objects. So, astronomers turned to Hubble’s Wide Field
Planetary Camera 2 in 1999, and, later, in 2002 and 2003, to Hubble’s
Advanced Camera for Surveys. These observations succeeded in showing the
two stars separately.

Seeing the two stars allowed astronomers to calculate the foreground
star’s distance from Earth, using a method called parallax. Due to the
motion of the Earth around the Sun, the position of a nearby star will
appear to shift relative to stars farther away. By measuring this shift,
astronomers can triangulate the distance to the star. Surveyors use a
similar method to measure distances on Earth. The distance derived in
this way also agrees with the distance inferred from details of the
brightness variations in 1993, based on subtle changes resulting from
the motion of the Earth during the lensing event.

Once the distance to the lensing star was known, and since the distance
to the Large Magellanic Cloud, where the background star is located, is
also known, astronomers could calculate the only remaining unknown in
the equation for microlensing, which is the mass of the foreground star.
Its mass turns out to be one-tenth the mass of our own Sun. Although a
low mass of about this amount was expected based on the faintness of the
red star, astronomers are nevertheless excited by this first application
of a new method for measuring stellar masses. They hope to apply it many
times in the future, by using the planned Space Interferometry Mission
satellite to observe many more microlensing events.

Astronomers Andrew Gould (Ohio State University), David Bennett
(University of Notre Dame) and David Alves (Goddard Space Flight Center)
report these results in a paper to appear in the Astronomical Journal.

Electronic images and additional information are available at:

The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) is operated by
the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc.
(AURA), for NASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight
Center, Greenbelt, MD. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project
of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space
Agency (ESA).

SpaceRef staff editor.