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A rare collision of dead stars can bring a new one to life

Like a phoenix, some stars may burst to life covered in “ash,” rising from the remains of stars that had previously passed on.

Two newfound fireballs that burn hundreds of times as bright as the sun and are covered in carbon and oxygen, ashy byproducts of helium fusion, belong to a new class of stars, researchers report in the March Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters. Though these blazing orbs are not the first stellar bodies found covered in carbon and oxygen, an analysis of the light emitted by the stars suggests they are the first discovered to also have helium-burning cores.

“That [combination] has never been seen before,” says study coauthor Nicole Reindl, an astrophysicist from the University of Potsdam in Germany. “That tells you the star must have evolved differently.”

The stars may have formed from the merging of two white dwarfs, the remnant hearts of stars that exhausted their fuel, another team proposes in a companion study. The story goes that one of the two was rich in helium, while the other contained lots of carbon and oxygen.These two white dwarfs had already been orbiting one another, but gradually drew together over time. Eventually the helium-rich white dwarf gobbled its partner, spewing carbon and oxygen all over its surface, just as a messy child might get food all over their face.

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