An extremely rare black widow binary star system has been discovered by MIT astronomers, and it has the shortest orbit observed yet. Officially named ZTF J1406+1222, the pulsar and companion star circle each other every 62 minutes, and unlike other binary star systems, appears to host a third, far-flung star that orbits around the two inner stars once every 10,000 years.
This means it could be possibly a triple black widow system, and the MIT team has proposed an origin story on how it could have formed. It most likely started as a dense constellation of old stars known as a globular cluster that eventually drifted into the Milky Way’s center, where the gravity of the central black hole was powerful enough to pull the cluster apart while leaving the triple black widow intact. Black widow binaries are essentially powered by pulsars that have a dizzying rotational period, spinning around every few milliseconds, and emitting flashes of high-energy gamma and X-rays in the process. All black window binary yet has been detected through these gamma and X-ray flashes, including ZTF J1406+1222. In related news, NASA’s Chandra spotted huge rings surrounding a black hole.
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It’s a complicated birth scenario. This system has probably been floating around in the Milky Way for longer than the sun has been around. This system is really unique as far as black widows go, because we found it with visible light, and because of its wide companion, and the fact it came from the galactic center,” said Kevin Burdge, a Pappalardo Postdoctoral Fellow in MIT’s Department of Physics.