Algol

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Algol (β Per, Beta Persei), known colloquially as the Demon Star, is a bright star in the constellation Perseus. It is one of the best known eclipsing binaries, the first such star to be discovered, and also one of the first (non-nova) variable stars to be discovered. Algol is actually a three-star system (Beta Persei A, B, and C) in which the large and bright primary Beta Persei A is regularly eclipsed by the dimmer Beta Persei B. Thus, Algol's magnitude is usually near-constant at 2.1, but regularly dips to 3.4 every two days, 20 hours and 49 minutes during the roughly 10-hour long partial eclipses. There is also a secondary eclipse when the brighter star occults the fainter secondary. This secondary eclipse can only be detected photoelectrically.[3] Algol gives its name to its class of eclipsing variable, known as Algol variables.

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Observation history

The variability of Algol was first recorded in 1667 by Geminiano Montanari, but it is probable that this property was noticed long before this time. The first person to propose a mechanism for the variability of this star was the British amateur astronomer John Goodricke. In May 1783 he presented his findings to the Royal Society, suggesting that the periodic variability was caused by a dark body passing in front of the star (or else that the star itself has a darker region that is periodically turned toward the Earth.) For his report he was awarded the Copley Medal.[4]

In 1881, the Harvard astronomer Edward Charles Pickering presented evidence that Algol was actually an eclipsing binary.[5] This was confirmed a few years later, in 1889, when the Potsdam astronomer Hermann Carl Vogel found periodic doppler shifts in the spectrum of Algol, inferring variations in the radial velocity of this binary system.[6] Thus Algol became one of the first known spectroscopic binaries.

System

Algol A and Algol B are an eclipsing binary, because their orbital plane coincidentally contains the Earth's line of sight. To be more precise, however, Algol is a triple-star system: the eclipsing binary pair is separated by only 0.062 AU, while the third star in the system (Algol C) is at an average distance of 2.69 AU from the pair and the mutual orbital period is 681 days (1.86 years). The total mass of the system is about 5.8 solar masses, and the mass ratios of A, B and C are about 4.5 : 1 : 2.

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