NASA Stumbled Into a Patch of Pumpkin Stars in Space
They're like jack-o-lanterns in space, except they produce X-rays.
While we can dream about growing pumpkins in space, for now, we’ll have to content ourselves with squashed, swirling balls of gas, hydrogen, and helium. On Thursday, NASA announced it discovered a patch of “pumpkin stars” — stars that spin so fast that their shape has flattened to resemble that of a jack-o-lantern.
These 18 pumpkin stars are believed to be what results when two sun-like stars combine. They produce X-rays at more than 100 times the peak levels of our sun, and make their rotation in just a few days, while the sun takes nearly a month. According to NASA, the “most extreme” pumpkin star is the KSw 71 — an orange giant that is 10 times larger than the sun, and “produces X-ray emission 4,000 times greater than the sun does at solar maximum.”
The pumpkin stars were discovered as a part of the agency’s Kepler and Swift missions. Researchers used the X-ray and ultraviolet/optical telescopes on Swift, a robotic spacecraft, to survey a six square degree area of the Kepler field (the goal of the Kepler mission is to explore and analyze the Milky Way galaxy). The team was on the hunt for X-ray sources, ideally active galaxies, and came across these 18 stars — but they anticipate that it’s possible to find at least 160 more.
That’s 506 less than the ideal Halloween number, and the discovery is yet another suspiciously, seasonally timed, fall treat, but we’ll take it. These pumpkin stars are extra unusual because they’re believed to spin so rapidly because of how early they shed their disk — a fact that NASA believes will be “a real boon to stellar astronomers.”