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Dec 05, 2013 09:51 AM EST

Supernova Near Earth Gives Astronomers Rare Insight to X-Ray Binary Star System

In terms of space and its endless expanses, 2,500 light years seems like a New York minute to many astronomers.

According to a University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) press release, an international team of astronomers observed a supernova that occurred a mere 2,500 years ago.

A supernova occurs when a star explodes and the light is measured in how long it takes to reach the view of astronomers on Earth. Sebastian Heinz and his research team discovered the collapsed core of the star that exploded to be still hanging on to its companion star. It is the first known example of such a system ever on record.

"It basically creates the historical record of that explosion. They don't last very long, so they are quite accurate clocks for finding things that are recent," Heinz said in the release. "This particular remnant is only about 2,500 years old, which makes the system the youngest known X-ray binary."

The research, published Tuesday in the Astrophysical Journal, will help scientists further understand the evolution process of stars. What's more is they will be able to study what happens to a star just before it explodes into a supernova.

The even the researchers observed is known as an X-ray binary, which occurs when an exploded star attach to one another and create X-rays together as they bring each other's temperature up. The unique system, named Circinus X-1, was spotted on the Milky Way galaxy's plane.

"In terms of a human lifetime, it would be roughly akin to a newborn just a few days old," said Paul Sell, a former (UWM) graduate student involved in the study.

"The shock wave from a supernova can only be seen for about 100,000 years or so before it dissipates and merges with the rest of the gas and dust around it in space," says Sell. "This is only a small fraction of the lifetime of an X-ray binary, making the chance to find one in this early phase of its life very small."

Most X-ray binary systems are already too old to have a supernova remnant to observe, so the researchers were fortunate to find this one at the time they did.

"The fact that we have this remnant along with the neutron star and its companion means we can test all kinds of things," said Heinz. "Our observations solve a number of puzzles both about this object and the way that neutron stars evolve after they are born. For example, the unusual elliptical orbit on which these two stars swing around each other is exactly what you would expect for a very young X-ray binary."

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