(Image: Bridgman)Has a papyrus from the time of the pharaohs exposed the ghoulish habits of the baleful Demon Star?
FROM 93 light years away in the constellationof Perseus, the Demon Star winks at us.Roughly once every three days its bright bluelight turns bloodshot as it reddens, fades for afew hours and then blazes out once more. Forthe ancient Greeks, it marked the blinking eyeof the Gorgon Medusa, whose head wassevered by Perseus. The star's morecommon name, Algol, derives from the Arabic
- the ghoul.Modern astronomy suggests that the DemonStar has a grisly habit to match that reputation: it should be eating itself. Yet oddly, our observationshave never quite matched our expectations. That might now have changed - thanks not to moderntelescopes, but to information encoded on an Egyptian papyrus 3000 years ago.Algol's baleful blinking has been systematically observed since at least the 17th century. In 1783 the19-year-old amateur astronomer John Goodricke suggested in a communication to the Royal Societyof London that the cause might be a darker body passing in front of the star. But it was only in 1881that a University of Harvard astronomer called Edward Pickering confirmed the fact: there is more thanone of Algol. A dense, brilliant blue star and a diffuse, bloated red star orbit perilously close to oneanother, merging into a single point of light. The two bodies are aligned to form an eclipsing binary,with the red star periodically passing in front of the blue, blocking it from our view.
Two's a crowd
That explains the blinking, but according to current theories two such muscular stars cannot peacefullycohabit in so small a space. Algol's diffuse red star should have only a weak grip on its outer layers ofgas, and the dense blue star should be pulling this gas away and devouring it. This stellar cannibalismshould act as a drag on the stars, gradually slowing their orbit and reducing the frequency of theblinking. But in centuries of observations we have been unable to see that. Algol's current period is2.867 days, or 68 hours 48 minutes, with each eclipse lasting about 10 hours. It has changed a littleover centuries, but apparently at random. If there is any long-term slowing trend, it has been maskedby shorter-term variation - perhaps caused by magnetic fields.In 2006, Sebastian Porceddu was unaware of this mystery. He was studying for two degrees, one inastronomy and one in Egyptology, at the University of Helsinki in Finland. His astronomical specialitywas looking for hidden periods in sequences of impact craters, sunspots and the like. Helsinki
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How an ancient Egyptian code unmasked a cannibal star
18 December 2012 by
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