Neutron Stars/X-ray Binaries

Chandra Peers Into Densest and Weirdest Stars

Image of 3C 58
X#C 58
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/ICE-CSIC/A. Marino et al.; Optical: SDSS; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Major

The supernova remnant 3C 58 contains a spinning neutron star, known as PSR J0205+6449, at its center. Astronomers studied this neutron star and others like it to probe the nature of matter inside these very dense objects. A new study, made using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton, reveals that the interiors of neutron stars may contain a type of ultra-dense matter not found anywhere else in the Universe.

In this image of 3C 58, low-energy X-rays are colored red, medium-energy X-rays are green, and the high-energy band of X-rays is shown in blue. The X-ray data have been combined with an optical image in yellow from the Digitized Sky Survey. The Chandra data show that the rapidly rotating neutron star (also known as a “pulsar”) at the center is surrounded by a torus of X-ray emission and a jet that extends for several light-years. The optical data shows stars in the field.

X-raying the Magnetic Field Bones of the Cosmic Hand

Portrait style photo of Roger Romani. The man has somewhat close-cropped grayish hair and he's wearing a navy blue polo shirt.
Roger Romani

We welcome Roger W. Romani as a guest blogger. Roger is the first author of a paper that is the subject of our latest Chandra release. He has been a professor of Physics at Stanford University for 30-odd years and helped found KIPAC, its institute focusing on astrophysics and cosmology. He is interested in high energy astrophysics problems of all sorts and likes to bring observations from multiple wavebands together with modeling to explain astrophysical puzzles. However, he has a special fondness for the extreme physics conditions associated with pulsars and their environments. Today’s blog gives one such example.

Magnetic fields are the binding agent that turn interstellar atoms into gases. Between the stars the particle density is so low that, without these fields, individual atoms would fly along like buckshot, essentially never colliding. But since the atoms are often ionized – with a positive charge because negatively charged electrons have been stripped away – their interaction with embedded magnetic fields forces them to flow in concord, resulting in the fluid-like behavior that forms many of the nebulas that enthrall us in astronomical images.

It is surprisingly hard to image this magnetic scaffolding. A new capability for magnetic mapping was introduced with the launch of NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) in late 2021. This telescope is sensitive to 1-10 keV X-rays and, using an ingenious photo-electron tracking camera developed by our Italian colleagues, is able to sense the polarization, or orientation of the electric field in the electromagnetic wave, of the individual X-ray events. (An “eV” is an electron volt, a unit that represents how much energy an electron gains when it is accelerated by the potential of one volt. A “keV” is 1000 eV.) So together with its imaging, timing, and energy resolution capabilities, IXPE can, for the first time, extract (albeit imperfectly) all of the information carried by each X-ray photon. The result is a color movie of the target, which also shows how the local emission is polarized.

Tiny Star Unleashes Gargantuan Beam of Matter and Antimatter

Image of j2030
PSR J2030+4415
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford Univ./M. de Vries; Optical: NSF/AURA/Gemini Consortium

This image from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ground-based optical telescopes shows an extremely long beam, or filament, of matter and antimatter extending from a relatively tiny pulsar, as reported in our latest press release. With its tremendous scale, this beam may help explain the surprisingly large numbers of positrons, the antimatter counterparts to electrons, scientists have detected throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

The panel on the left displays about one third the length of the beam from the pulsar known as PSR J2030+4415 (J2030 for short), which is located about 1,600 light years from Earth. J2030 is a dense, city-sized object that formed from the collapse of a massive star and currently spins about three times per second. X-rays from Chandra (blue) show where particles flowing from the pulsar along magnetic field lines are moving at about a third the speed of light. A close-up view of the pulsar in the right panel shows the X-rays created by particles flying around the pulsar itself. As the pulsar moves through space at about a million miles an hour, some of these particles escape and create the long filament. In both panels, optical light data from the Gemini telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii have been used and appear red, brown, and black. The full length of the filament is shown in a separate image.

Chandra Studies Extraordinary Magnetar

Image of J1818
Magnetar J1818.0-1607
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of West Virginia/H. Blumer;
Infrared (Spitzer and Wise): NASA/JPL-CalTech/Spitzer

In 2020, astronomers added a new member to an exclusive family of exotic objects with the discovery of a magnetar. New observations from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory help support the idea that it is also a pulsar, meaning it emits regular pulses of light.

Magnetars are a type of neutron star, an incredibly dense object mainly made up of tightly packed neutrons, which forms from the collapsed core of a massive star during a supernova.

What sets magnetars apart from other neutron stars is that they also have the most powerful known magnetic fields in the Universe. For context, the strength of our planet's magnetic field has a value of about one Gauss, while a refrigerator magnet measures about 100 Gauss. Magnetars, on the other hand, have magnetic fields of about a million billion Gauss. If a magnetar was located a sixth of the way to the Moon (about 40,000 miles), it would wipe the data from all of the credit cards on Earth.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Critical for GPS, Seen in Distant Stars

The neutron star is shown in this artist's impression at the center of a disk of hot gas pulled away from its companion.
4U 1916-053, spectrum & illustration
Credit: Spectrum: NASA/CXC/University of Michigan/N. Trueba et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

What do Albert Einstein, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and a pair of stars 200,000 trillion miles from Earth have in common?

The answer is an effect from Einstein's General Theory of Relativity called the "gravitational redshift," where light is shifted to redder colors because of gravity. Using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have discovered the phenomenon in two stars orbiting each other in our galaxy about 29,000 light years (200,000 trillion miles) away from Earth. While these stars are very distant, gravitational redshifts have tangible impacts on modern life, as scientists and engineers must take them into account to enable accurate positions for GPS.

While scientists have found incontrovertible evidence of gravitational redshifts in our solar system, it has been challenging to observe them in more distant objects across space. The new Chandra results provide convincing evidence for gravitational redshift effects at play in a new cosmic setting.

NASA's Great Observatories Help Astronomers Build a 3D Visualization of Exploded Star

In the year 1054 AD, Chinese sky watchers witnessed the sudden appearance of a "new star" in the heavens, which they recorded as six times brighter than Venus, making it the brightest observed stellar event in recorded history. This "guest star," as they described it, was so bright that people saw it in the sky during the day for almost a month. Native Americans also recorded its mysterious appearance in petroglyphs.

Observing the nebula with the largest telescope of the time, Lord Rosse in 1844 named the object the "Crab" because of its tentacle-like structure. But it wasn't until the 1900s that astronomers realized the nebula was the surviving relic of the 1054 supernova, the explosion of a massive star.

Now, astronomers and visualization specialists from the NASA's Universe of Learning program have combined the visible, infrared, and X-ray vision of NASA's Great Observatories to create a three-dimensional representation of the dynamic Crab Nebula. Certain structures and processes, driven by the pulsar engine at the heart of the nebula, are best seen at particular wavelengths.

A Magnetar-powered X-ray Transient as the Aftermath of a Binary Neutron-star Merger

Yongquan Xue
Yongquan Xue

We are pleased to welcome Yongquan Xue, a professor at the Department of Astronomy, University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), as a guest blogger. He is an astrophysicist whose main research field is X-ray high-energy astrophysics, and has been significantly involved in the Chandra Deep Fields. Yongquan led the Nature paper that is the subject of our latest press release on the discovery of a magnetar-powered X-ray transient. Before joining USTC in 2012, he worked at Penn State University as a postdoc, after obtaining his astrophysics B.S. and M.S. degrees at Peking University, and Ph.D. degree at Purdue University, respectively.

A neutron star is the compact object formed after a supernova explosion occurring in the late evolutionary stage of a massive star, and it is one of the most mysterious objects in the universe. It is composed of almost all neutrons, and has some extreme physical properties such as ultra-high density and a super-strong magnetic field. It is an excellent natural laboratory for testing basic physical laws. However, up to now, our understanding about the basic properties of neutron stars (e.g., the equation of state, which describes the relation among pressure, density, etc.) is still relatively vague.

A New Signal for a Neutron Star Collision Discovered

Image of XT2
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Uni. of Science and Technology of China/Y. Xue et al; Optical: NASA/STScI

These images show the location of an event, discovered by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, that likely signals the merger of two neutron stars. A bright burst of X-rays in this source, dubbed XT2, could give astronomers fresh insight into how neutron stars — dense stellar objects packed mainly with neutrons — are built.

Chandra Serves up Cosmic Holiday Assortment

This is the season of celebrating, and the Chandra X-ray Center has prepared a platter of cosmic treats from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to enjoy. This selection represents different types of objects — ranging from relatively nearby exploded stars to extremely distant and massive clusters of galaxies — that emit X-rays detected by Chandra. Each image in this collection blends Chandra data with other telescopes, creating a colorful medley of light from our Universe.


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