The BU White Dwarf Group

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Welcome to the home page of the BU White Dwarf group, headquartered a few blocks from Fenway Park in Boston, MA, USA.

Our research focuses on white dwarf stars and their connection to the endpoints of stars, binary, and planetary systems. Our work is supported by Boston University, the Institute for Astrophysical Research, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium.

Recent news and group updates:
Research updates can be found below and on the news page.

Preempting an ‘oops’ with JWST

By JJ HermesJanuary 14th, 2022
A finder chart and TESS light curve of the now-omitted JWST standard star HD 38949 (credit Mullally et al. 2022).

In January 2022, Deputy Project Scientist for JWST Susan Mullally and members of the BUWD group announced the first results of a project to monitor nearly all possible spectrophotometric standards that are planned to calibrate the high-precision observations undertaken by the recently launched 6.5-meter James Webb Space Telescope. Using another NASA mission, TESS, we found that most planned standards are suitable for calibrations. However, we also discovered four that are intrinsically quite variable, including one especially poor standard that the JWST team has now thrown out (see image above). The work has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal; a short thread on the discovery can be found here.

TESS watches a low-mass white dwarf pulsate

By JJ HermesOctober 8th, 2021
Eight days of brightness changes as seen from TESS from the pulsating extremely low-mass white dwarf GD 278 (credit Lopez et al. 2021).

In October 2021, former BUWD group member Isaac Lopez led a global collaboration announcing the discovery, characterization with TESS, and asteroseismic modeling of the pulsations in the first extremely low-mass white dwarf observed from space: GD 278. Using a method to select variable white dwarfs from Gaia pioneered by our group, we first saw pulsations from McDonald Observatory in August 2019. We quickly secured TESS data (see above), producing some of the best data on a pulsating white dwarf ever collected. We matched the observed oscillation periods to theoretical models with multiple stellar evolution codes. This is now the lowest-mass white dwarf with a measured rotation rate. The work was accepted for publication and will appear soon in the Astrophysical Journal; a thread can be found here on Twitter:

A 99-min binary from SDSS-V

By JJ HermesSeptember 25th, 2021
Data (left) and the model (right) of the velocity changes of the new 99-min WD+WD binary SDSS J1337+3952 from SDSS-V (credit Chandra et al. 2021).

In one of the first science results from SDSS-V, collaborators led by Harvard graduate student Vedant Chandra have discovered a double-lined, double-white-dwarf binary orbiting one another every 99 minutes in a paper that was recently accepted for publication by the Astrophysical Journal. The two white dwarfs will merge into a roughly 0.85 solar-mass remnant in less than 300 million years, and the system is already likely giving off enough gravitational waves to be detectable by the LISA mission. A nice Twitter summary of the discovery is here. The pair of stars was found in just the first six months of SDSS-V data, so more exciting discoveries await when the robots take over later this year!

Rotation in shrapnel from a supernova

By JJ HermesJuly 10th, 2021
An artist's impression of the explosion and subsequent ejection of a partly burnt runaway star like LP 40-365 (credit University of Warwick/Mark Garlick).

In June 2021 work led by researchers in the BU White Dwarf group discovered that the partly burnt runaway star LP 40-365 (also known as GD 492) rotates every 8.9 hours using archival data from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). This relatively long rotation period likes adds more evidence that LP 40-365 is actually the bound remnant of an exploded white dwarf itself, the still-simmering embers of a thermonuclear (Type Iax) explosion that slung-shot the star from the Milky Way. An excellent write-up was recently featured in The Brink, and a thread on the discovery of the system is located here: The paper has been published the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Debris orbiting a white dwarf every 9.9 hours

By JJ HermesJuly 10th, 2021
Individual light curves from McDonald Observatory phased to 9.9370 hr, showing repeated structures in the debris transiting the white dwarf ZTF J0328−1219. Each successive light curve is vertically shifted down for easier comparison between nights and labeled by their corresponding dates (credit Vanderbosch et al. 2021).

In June 2021, collaborators from all over the world led by UT-Austin graduate student Zach Vanderbosch characterized the orbital period of transiting debris around a new white dwarf: ZTF J0328−1219. The debris shows repeating dips that are stable from night-to-night and repeat every 9.937 hr (shown in the figure above over several nights), as well as some other chunks that repeat every 11.2 hr. Spectra collected by BUWD group members were analyzed to show this is a strongly metal polluted white dwarf; new data show the debris shows circumstellar absorption features from the clouds of debris, as well. The work was accepted for publication and will appear soon in the Astrophysical Journal.