Explosions triggered by violent binary–star collisions: application to Eta Carinae and other eruptive transients


E-mail: nathans@as.arizona.edu


This paper discusses a scenario where a violent periastron collision of stars in an eccentric binary system induces an eruption or explosion seen as a brief transient source, attributed to luminous blue variables (LBVs), supernova (SN) impostors or other transients. The key ingredient is that an evolved primary increases its photospheric radius on relatively short (year to decade) time-scales, to a point where the radius is comparable to or larger than the periastron separation in an eccentric binary. In such a configuration, a violent and sudden collision would ensue, possibly leading to substantial mass ejection instead of a merger. Sudden energy deposition during the encounter could drive expansion of the optically thick envelope, causing a luminous transient source. Repeated periastral grazings in an eccentric system could quickly escalate to a catastrophic encounter. Outbursts triggered by tidal disturbances or powered by secondary accretion of the primary star’s wind have been suggested previously. Instead, this paper proposes a much more violent encounter where the companion star plunges deep inside the photosphere of a bloated primary during periastron, as a result of the primary star increasing its own radius. This is motivated by the case of Eta Carinae, where such a collision must have occurred if conventional estimates of the present-day orbit are correct and where peaks in the light curve coincide with times of periastron. Stellar collisions may explain brief recurring LBV outbursts, such as SN 2000ch and SN 2009ip, and perhaps outbursts from intermediate-mass progenitor stars (i.e. collisions are not necessarily the exclusive domain of very luminous stars), but they cannot explain all non-SN transients. Finally, mass ejections induced repeatedly at periastron cause orbital evolution; this may explain the origin of eccentric Wolf–Rayet binaries such as WR 140.