Categorized | Space

Shrinking Polaris

North StarThe North Star, also known as Polaris, is slowly losing its mass and shrinking. After 160 years of monitoring the star which has been used for navigation purposes since the early days of human civilization, scientists have concluded that it is indeed becoming smaller each year.

Polaris is a pulsating star, which means that it runs through a cycle, becoming brighter and dimmer over a standard amount of time. In the case of Polaris, it has been a four day long cycle. Since detailed analysis and documentation began on the North Star more than 160 years ago, the so-called pulse of the star has slowed by 12 minutes. By simple calculations, this means that the star reaches its peak brightness 4.5 seconds slower each year during its four day pulse cycle.

But what does a pulse have to do with the size and mass of a star? Hilding Neilson, a German astrophysicist at the University of Bonn used the pulse of Polaris to weigh the star. Through calculations regarding the brightness, intensity and frequency of light, the mass has been predicted and agreed upon by leading astrophysicists around the globe. With the slowing of the pulse of Polaris, the mass has been found to be shrinking at a rate roughly equal to the mass of the earth each year.

While this is an astounding rate, it is not unexpected. The star is evolving; Currently Polaris is thought to be burning helium atom nuclei in its core, but the rate of pulses are suggesting otherwise. It could be evolving into a red giant, or maybe has already passed the red giant phase and is actually evolving into the helium burning pulsar we know it as today. Most of the scientific community is unsure on what will happen next and is waiting for more conclusive data before deciding.

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