Three Investigations of Low Mass Stars in the Milky Way Using New Technology Surveys
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At least 80% of stars in the Milky Way have masses less than or equal to the Sun. These long lived stars are the most likely hosts of planets where complex life can develop. Although relatively stable on the timescale of billions of years, many low mass stars possess strong magnetic fields that are manifested in energetic surface activity, which may pose a hazard to both life and technology. Magnetic activity also influences the evolution of a low mass star through a feedback process that slows the rotation rate, which in turn tends to decrease the amount of activity. In this way, the rotation rate and activity level of a low mass star may provide an estimate of its age. Beyond their rotation-activity evolution as isolated objects, a small but important fraction of low mass stars have a close binary companion that influences the rotational and orbital properties of the system. Binary interaction can lead to phenomena such as supernovae, cataclysmic variables, and degenerate object mergers. From a larger perspective, low mass stars trace Galactic structure, and through their longevity serve as archives of the dynamical and chemical history of the Milky Way. Thus a full picture of low mass stars, and by extension the Milky Way, requires understanding their rotation and activity; their interaction in close binaries; and their spatial and kinematic distribution throughout the Galaxy. Historically, these topics have been approached from two separate but complementary modes of observation. Time series photometric surveys measure the stellar variability caused by rotation, activity, and binary interaction, while wide field surveys measure the brightnesses and colors of millions of stars to map their distribution in the Galaxy. The first generation of digital detectors and computing technology limited intensive time series surveys to a small number of stars, and limited wide field surveys to little if any variability information. Today those limitations are falling away. This thesis is composed of three investigations of low mass stars using two recent surveys at the cutting edge of detector technology. The \Kepler space telescope carried the largest camera ever launched into space, and continuously monitored the brightnesses of hundreds of thousands of stars with unprecedented precision and cadence. The Pan-STARRS survey was equipped with the largest camera ever constructed, and imaged 75\% percent of the sky to greater depth than any previous optical survey. The first investigation in this thesis used \Kepler observations of a binary system containing two stars that are about one third the mass of the Sun. The convective motions in these stars extend to their centers, and so there is no interface with a radiative core to drive a solar-like dynamo that powers the magnetic activity of stars like the Sun. By virtue of being in a binary, the stars have the same age, providing a control for the interdependent effects of activity and rotation. The investigation found that the stars have nearly the same level of activity, despite one star rotating almost three times faster than the other. This suggests that in fully convective stars, there is a threshold rotation rate above which activity is no longer correlated with rotation. The second investigation also used \Kepler observations, but in this case focused on low mass stars in close binaries, where tidal interactions are expected to circularize the orbit and synchronize the rotation rates to the orbital period. Prior to this investigation, there were few observational constraints on the tidal synchronization of stars with convective envelopes, and this investigation resulted in rotation period measurements for over 800 such stars. At orbital periods below approximately ten days, nearly all binaries are synchronized, while beyond ten days most binaries have eccentric orbits and rotation rates that are synchronized to the angular velocity at periastron. An unexpected result was that 15\% of binaries with orbital periods below ten days are rotating about 13\% slower than the synchronized rate. It was suggested that the equators of the stars are in fact synchronized, and that the subsynchronous signal originates from slower rotating high latitudes. The subsynchronous population presents a new test for theories of activity and differential rotation in tidally interacting binaries. The final investigation used Pan-STARRS observations to search for asymmetries in the disk of the Milky Way. In this case, low mass stars served as tracers of Galactic structure. Previous deep optical surveys avoided the Galactic plane, but Pan-STARRS enabled a comprehensive search. In particular, asymmetries in the stellar density distribution may be the result of interactions with satellite galaxies, and the frequency and nature of the interactions provide an observational test case for theories of galaxy formation. The investigation revealed four asymmetries that extend over much of the visible disk. The observations are qualitatively consistent with mock observations of a Milky Way-like galaxy with a radial wave in its midplane. Although the origin of these asymmetries continues to be debated, the results support a new view of the Milky Way disk that is asymmetric at the 10-30\% level in terms of the mean number of star counts. As a whole, the three investigations in this thesis bring together two different observational approaches to take a holistic view of low mass stars in the Milky Way. In the near future, new surveys will provide even higher quality data for billions of stars. Therefore, it will be more important than ever to understand low mass stars both as complex astrophysical objects and as a major constituent of the Galaxy.
- Astronomy