Neutron Stars/X-ray Binaries

Angle Matters: A New Perspective on Neutron Star Collisions Solves an Old Mystery

Eleonora Troja
Eleonora Troja

We are very pleased to welcome Eleonora Troja as our guest blogger. She is an associate research scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, with a joint appointment at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She divides her time between her research on colliding neutron stars, directing the Swift Guest Investigator Program, and her three-year-old daughter, Bianca.

A year ago, on October 16th 2017, an amazing discovery was announced. GW170817, a collision of two neutron stars seen through gravitational waves and light, had realized the perfect union of two worlds. At the press conference organized by the National Science Foundation, a journalist asked an important question to the panelists: “Hadn’t we seen similar events before?” In that moment my mind ran back to an unusual gamma-ray burst, GRB150101B, localized by NASA’s Swift satellite nearly three years earlier.

GRB150101B was a flash of gamma-ray radiation that lasted for less than a fraction of a second. It was one of the weakest explosions ever seen with Swift, yet it was very luminous in X-rays and for a very long time. This was so unusual that Swift scientists were not sure whether the burst was a gamma ray burst (GRB) or another type of weird explosion, and dubbed it with a dual name GRB 150101B / SwiftJ123205.1-1056. I asked that NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory observe this object and help us unravel the mystery of its nature. Chandra revealed that there were two sources of X-ray light, not resolved by the Swift observations. A bright X-ray source was located at the center of the galaxy, probably indicating the presence of a supermassive black hole. Next to it, Chandra discovered a weaker X-ray signal coming from GRB150101B. At the same position, telescopes caught a glow of visible light which quickly faded away.

Chandra Scouts Nearest Star System for Possible Hazards

A new study involving long-term monitoring of Alpha Centauri by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory indicates that any planets orbiting the two brightest stars are likely not being pummeled by large amounts of X-ray radiation from their host stars, as described in our press release. This is important for the viability of life in the nearest star system outside the Solar System. Chandra data from May 2nd, 2017 are seen in the pull-out, which is shown in context of a visible-light image taken from the ground of the Alpha Centauri system and its surroundings.

Alpha Centauri is a triple star system located just over four light years, or about 25 trillion miles, from Earth. While this is a large distance in terrestrial terms, it is three times closer than the next nearest Sun-like star.

The stars in the Alpha Centauri system include a pair called "A" and "B," (AB for short) which orbit relatively close to each other. Alpha Cen A is a near twin of our Sun in almost every way, including age, while Alpha Cen B is somewhat smaller and dimmer but still quite similar to the Sun. The third member, Alpha Cen C (also known as Proxima), is a much smaller red dwarf star that travels around the AB pair in a much larger orbit that takes it more than 10 thousand times farther from the AB pair than the Earth-Sun distance. Proxima currently holds the title of the nearest star to Earth, although AB is a very close second.

Two Neutron Stars + Gravitational Waves = A Black Hole

Dave Pooley
Dave Pooley

It is a pleasure to welcome Dave Pooley as a guest blogger. Dave led the black hole study that is the subject of our latest press release. He is an associate professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where he loves doing research with a cadre of amazing undergraduates on topics ranging from gravitational lensing to supermassive black holes to supernova explosions to exotic X-ray binaries to globular clusters. He lives in Austin with his wife, two (soon to be three) children, two cats, and one dog. When he’s not setting up train tracks, watching Daniel Tiger, or analyzing Chandra data, he enjoys cooking, woodworking, and all manner of whisky.

A colleague of mine at MIT once said that the minute the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) detects gravitational waves, it will be one of the most successful physics experiments ever performed, and the next minute, it will immediately become one of the most successful astronomical observatories ever operated.

He was exactly right. The direct detection of gravitational waves was a tremendous success for fundamental physics. We knew that gravitational radiation existed, but to directly detect it was huge. It was a triumph due to the meticulous and brilliant work of the hundreds of people who worked for years and years to make LIGO a success.

And immediately with that first detection, astronomers added gravitational waves to our tool belt of ways to study the universe. With just that first event, which was a merger of two black holes, we learned so much more about black holes than we previously knew. That, in turn, raised even more questions about these intriguing objects. Clearly, 60-solar-mass black holes exist. (That was news to us!) And you make them from 30-solar-mass black holes. (That was news to us too!) So 30-solar-mass black holes exist. (Even that was news to us, too!) But how do you make those? We astronomers have a few ideas, but we’re really not sure. We haven’t figured that out yet. Nature of course, already has.

Astronomers Spot a Distant and Lonely Neutron Star

Astronomers have discovered a special kind of neutron star for the first time outside of the Milky Way galaxy, using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.

Neutron stars are the ultra dense cores of massive stars that collapse and undergo a supernova explosion. This newly identified neutron star is a rare variety that has both a low magnetic field and no stellar companion.

The neutron star is located within the remains of a supernova — known as 1E 0102.2-7219 (E0102 for short) — in the Small Magellanic Cloud, located 200,000 light years from Earth.

Sagittarius A* Swarm: Black Hole Bounty Captured in the Milky Way Center

Astronomers have discovered evidence for thousands of black holes located near the center of our Milky Way galaxy using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

This black hole bounty consists of stellar-mass black holes, which typically weigh between five to 30 times the mass of the Sun. These newly identified black holes were found within three light years — a relatively short distance on cosmic scales — of the supermassive black hole at our Galaxy's center known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*).

Theoretical studies of the dynamics of stars in galaxies have indicated that a large population of stellar mass black holes — as many as 20,000 — could drift inward over the eons and collect around Sgr A*. This recent analysis using Chandra data is the first observational evidence for such a black hole bounty.

A black hole by itself is invisible. However, a black hole — or neutron star — locked in close orbit with a star will pull gas from its companion (astronomers call these systems "X-ray binaries"). This material falls into a disk and heats up to millions of degrees and produces X-rays before disappearing into the black hole. Some of these X-ray binaries appear as point-like sources in the Chandra image.

A Crab Walks Through Time

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory launch into space. The Crab Nebula was one of the first objects that Chandra examined with its sharp X-ray vision, and it has been a frequent target of the telescope ever since.

There are many reasons that the Crab Nebula is such a well-studied object. For example, it is one of a handful of cases where there is strong historical evidence for when the star exploded. Having this definitive timeline helps astronomers understand the details of the explosion and its aftermath.

ULX in M51: Beaming with the Light of Millions of Suns

In the 1980s, scientists started discovering a new class of extremely bright sources of X-rays in galaxies. These sources were a surprise, as they were clearly located away from the supermassive black holes found in the center of galaxies. At first, researchers thought that many of these ultraluminous X-ray sources, or ULXs, were black holes containing masses between about a hundred and a hundred thousand times that of the sun. Later work has shown some of them may be stellar-mass black holes, containing up to a few tens of times the mass of the sun.

In 2014, observations with NASA's NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) and Chandra X-ray Observatory showed that a few ULXs, which glow with X-ray light equal in luminosity to the total output at all wavelengths of millions of suns, are even less massive objects called neutron stars. These are the burnt-out cores of massive stars that exploded. Neutron stars typically contain only about 1.5 times the mass of the sun. Three such ULXs were identified as neutron stars in the last few years. Scientists discovered regular variations, or "pulsations," in the X-ray emission from ULXs, behavior that is exhibited by neutron stars but not black holes.

Now, researchers using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have identified a fourth ULX as being a neutron star, and found new clues about how these objects can shine so brightly. The newly characterized ULX is located in the Whirlpool galaxy, also known as M51. This composite image of the Whirlpool contains X-rays from Chandra (purple) and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope (red, green, and blue). The ULX is marked with a circle.

Chandra Makes First Detection of X-rays from a Gravitational Wave Source: Interview with Chandra Scientist Daryl Haggard

Daryl Haggard
Chandra Scientist Daryl Haggard

Daryl Haggard is an Assistant Professor of Physics at McGill University. She is an observational astronomer and received her PhD at the University of Washington (Seattle, WA). She and her group study Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the heart of our Milky Way Galaxy. Haggard's team uses radio, submillimeter, near infrared, and X-ray telescopes to probe Sgr A*'s exotic environment, where strong gravity plays a key role. Her team also studies the interplay between distant growing supermassive black holes, or active galactic nuclei, and their host galaxies. And when opportunity knocks, she and her group search for X-ray flashes emitted from neutron stars and black holes when they collide. These collisions send ripples through space-time, gravitational waves, now being detected by LIGO and Virgo.

What are gravitational waves? What are neutron stars?

Gravitational waves are “jiggles” in the fabric of space-time. They are like sound waves traveling through the air around me while I talk, but gravitational waves race through the Universe at the speed of light and carry LOTS of energy away from their source.

Meanwhile, neutron stars are basically big balls of neutrons. They are born during supernova explosions when the gravity on the inside of a star is so intense it forces the electrons into the protons, making neutrons. Actually, the fusion that happens during these supernovas is how atoms like oxygen, iron, all the stuff we need for life, gets built. Neutron stars weigh two or three times the mass of our Sun, but are only the size of a modest city, like Boston or Montreal. They are incredibly dense objects. For example, if you took the Earth’s whole human population and squished it into an object the size of a sugar cube, we’d all become a neutron star.

Chandra Makes First Detection of X-rays from a Gravitational Wave Source: Interview with Chandra Scientist Wen-fai Fong

Wen-fai Fong
Chandra Scientist Wen-fai Fong

Originally from Rochester, NY, Wen-fai Fong received double Bachelor's degrees in Physics and Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and earned her Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Harvard University. She was subsequently awarded an Einstein Postdoctoral Fellowship, which she took to the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory. She is currently a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University and will begin her appointment as Assistant Professor there in Fall 2018. Wen-fai is excited about unraveling the mysteries enshrouding cosmic explosions, including gamma-ray bursts and gravitational wave sources.

What are gravitational waves? What are neutron stars?

Gravitational waves are best described as ripples in space-time. To envision these merging compact objects, I always try to think of two round objects on a very flexible trampoline, rolling and rolling around each other. For the most flexible of trampolines, they will create some sort of pattern outward, while also spiraling toward each other and eventually colliding. It’s an oversimplified version, but that is how I best imagine what is going on.

In reality, the specific properties of the system — the masses, spins, orbital orientation, and distance — determine the very special pattern of the gravitational waves that are radiated from a system. Scientists then match that pattern against a gigantic bank of patterns by the gravitational wave experts who are able to determine very specific properties of the system. So it is a very neat and elegant problem that is made possible by many years of hard work.

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