Runaway Coalescence at the Onset of Common Envelope Episodes

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Luminous red nova transients, presumably from stellar coalescence, exhibit long-term precursor emission over hundreds of binary orbits, leading to impulsive outbursts with durations similar to a single orbital period. In an effort to understand these signatures, we present and analyze a hydrodynamic model of unstable mass transfer from a giant-star donor onto a more compact accretor in a binary system. Our simulation begins with mass transfer at the Roche limit separation and traces a phase of runaway decay leading to the plunge of the accretor within the envelope of the donor. We characterize the fluxes of mass and angular momentum through the system and show that the orbital evolution can be reconstructed from measurements of these quantities. The morphology of outflow from the binary changes significantly as the binary orbit tightens. At wide separations, a thin stream of relatively high-entropy gas trails from the outer Lagrange points. As the orbit tightens, the orbital motion desynchronizes from the donor's rotation, and low-entropy ejecta trace a broad fan of largely ballistic trajectories. An order-of-magnitude increase in mass ejection rate accompanies the plunge of the accretor with the envelope of the donor. We argue that this transition marks the precursor-to-outburst transition observed in stellar coalescence transients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number5
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 10 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • binaries: close
  • hydrodynamics
  • methods: numerical


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