A binary star is a star system consisting of two stars orbiting around their common center of mass. The brighter star is called the primary and the other is its companion star, comes, or secondary. Research between the early 19th century and today suggests that many stars are part of either binary star systems or star systems with more than two stars, called multiple star systems. The term double star may be used synonymously with binary star, but more generally, a double star may be either a binary star or an optical double star which consists of two stars with no physical connection but which appear close together in the sky as seen from the Earth. A double star may be determined to be optical if its components have sufficiently different proper motions or radial velocities, or if parallax measurements reveal its two components to be at sufficiently different distances from the Earth. Most known double stars have not yet been determined to be either bound binary star systems or optical doubles.
Binary star systems are very important in astrophysics because calculations of their orbits allow the masses of their component stars to be directly determined, which in turn allows other stellar parameters, such as radius and density, to be indirectly estimated. This also determines an empirical mass-luminosity relationship (MLR) from which the masses of single stars can be estimated.
Binary stars are often detected optically, in which case they are called visual binaries. Many visual binaries have long orbital periods of several centuries or millennia and therefore have orbits which are uncertain or poorly known. They may also be detected by indirect techniques, such as spectroscopy (spectroscopic binaries) or astrometry (astrometric binaries). If a binary star happens to orbit in a plane along our line of sight, its components will eclipse and transit each other; these pairs are called eclipsing binaries, or, as they are detected by their changes in brightness during eclipses and transits, photometric binaries.
If components in binary star systems are close enough they can gravitationally distort their mutual outer stellar atmospheres. In some cases, these close binary systems can exchange mass, which may bring their evolution to stages that single stars cannot attain. Examples of binaries are Algol (an eclipsing binary), Sirius, and Cygnus X-1 (of which one member is probably a black hole). Binary stars are also common as the nuclei of many planetary nebulae, and are the progenitors of both novae and type Ia supernovae.
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