A star system or stellar system is a small number of stars which orbit each other, bound by gravitational attraction. A large number of stars bound by gravitation is generally called a star cluster or galaxy, although, broadly speaking, they are also star systems. Star system is occasionally also used to refer to a system of a single star together with a planetary system of orbiting smaller bodies.
Binary star systems
A stellar system of two stars is known as a binary star, binary star system or physical double star. If there are no tidal effects, no perturbation from other forces, and no transfer of mass from one star to the other, such a system is stable, and both stars will trace out an elliptical orbit around the center of mass of the system indefinitely. See Two-body problem.
Examples of binary systems are Sirius, Procyon and Cygnus X-1, the last of which probably consists of a star and a black hole.
Multiple star systems
Multiple star systems
or physical multiple stars
are systems of more than two stars. Multiple star systems are called triple
if they contain three stars; quadruple
if they contain four stars; quintuple
with five stars; sextuple
with six stars; septuple
with seven stars; and so on. These systems are smaller than open star clusters
, which have more complex dynamics and typically have from 100 to 1,000 stars.
Theoretically, modelling a multiple star system is more difficult than modelling a binary star, as the dynamical system
involved, the n-body problem
, may exhibit chaotic
Many configurations of small groups of stars are found to be unstable, as eventually one star will approach another closely and be accelerated so much that it will escape from the system. This instability can be avoided if the system is what Evans has called hierarchical
. In a hierarchical system, the stars in the system can be divided into two smaller groups, each of which traverses a larger orbit around the system's center of mass
. Each of these smaller groups must also be hierarchical, which means that they must be divided into smaller subgroups which themselves are hierarchical, and so on. In this case, the stars' motion will continue to approximate stable Keplerian
orbits around the system's center of mass, unlike the more complex dynamics
of the large number of stars
in star clusters
Most multiple star systems known are triple; for higher multiplicities, the number of known systems with a given multiplicity decreases exponentially with multiplicity. For example, in the 1999 revision of
Tokovinin's catalog of physical multiple stars,
551 out of the 728 systems described are triple. However, because of selection effects
, our knowledge of these statistics is very incomplete., §2.
Because of the dynamical instabilities mentioned earlier, triple systems are generally hierarchical: they contain a close binary pair which has a more distant companion. Systems with higher multiplicities are also generally hierarchical. Systems with up to six stars are known; for example, Castor (Alpha Geminorum), which consists of a binary pair in a distant orbit of two closer binary pairs. Another system known with six stars is ADS 9731, which consists of a pair of two triple systems, each of which is a spectroscopic binary in orbit together with a single star.
- Polaris, the north star, is a triple star system in which the closer companion star is extremely close to the main star—so close that it was only known from its gravitational tug on Polaris A until it was photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2006.
- Alpha Centauri is a triple star composed of a main binary yellow dwarf pair (Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B), and an outlying red dwarf, Proxima Centauri. A and B are a physical binary star, with an eccentric orbit in which A and B can be as close as 11 AU or as far away as 36 AU. Proxima is much further away (~15,000 AU) from A and B than they are to each other. Although this distance is still small compared to other interstellar distances, it is debatable whether Proxima is gravitationally bound to A and B.
- HD 188753 is a triple star system located approximately 149 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The system is composed of HD 188753A, a yellow dwarf; HD 188753B, an orange dwarf; and HD 188753C, a red dwarf. B and C orbit each other every 156 days, and, as a group, orbit A every 25.7 years.