A supernova that signals the death of a massive star sends titanic shock waves rumbling through interstellar space. An ultra-dense neutron star is usually left behind, which is far from dead, as it spews out a blizzard of high-energy particles. Two new images from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory provide fascinating views - including an enigmatic lobster-like feature - of the complex aftermath of a supernova.
Neutron Stars/X-ray Binaries
Nanda Rea. Credit: N. Rea
Last week, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) announced the awards that will be presented at their upcoming meeting in August in Moscow. One of the winners of the Yakov B. Zeldovich Medals -- a joint award of COSPAR and the Russian Academy of Sciences conferred on young scientists for excellence and achievements – will go to Nanda Rea.
Dr. Rea is an assistant professor at the Institute of Space Sciences (CSIC-IEEC) in Barcelona and the Anton Pannekoek Institute (API) at the University of Amsterdam. She has spent much of her career studying magnetars, a special class of neutron stars that have some of the strongest magnetic fields in the Universe.
An extraordinary jet trailing behind a runaway pulsar is seen in this composite image that contains data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (purple), radio data from the Australia Compact Telescope Array (green), and optical data from the 2MASS survey (red, green, and blue). The pulsar - a spinning neutron star - and its tail are found in the lower right of this image (mouse over the image for a labeled version). The tail stretches for 37 light years , making it the longest jet ever seen from an object in the Milky Way galaxy, as described in our press release.
Lucia Pavan graduated with a master thesis in astronomy at the University of Padova (the same town from which Galileo discovered Jupiter's moons). Four years later she also got her PhD in Physics at the same university, working on "magnetars" -a particular kind of pulsars, with the highest magnetic fields. After the PhD, she obtained a postdoc position at the University of Geneva - Switzerland, working at the INTEGRAL Science Data Center (ISDC). In between, she moved to the US, working at University of Wisconsin-Madison for a few months. She currently lives in Geneva, working at the ISDC.
When I started to work on the sources discovered by the INTEGRAL satellite, I didn’t expect to find an object that was extraordinary not only for the properties of its emission, but also for its extension and shape in the sky. And yet this was the case when I came across IGR J11014-6103.
INTEGRAL is an ESA satellite in operation since 2002, sensitive mainly to X-ray and gamma-ray bands. The satellite has been accumulating data since the beginning of the mission, providing information on an always-growing number of X-ray emitters. It is thanks to this ability that new objects are continuously discovered. A large fraction of the sources that INTEGRAL has found still lacks any physical classification, a perfect area for new findings to be done.
When we released Chandra’s image of the pulsar known as PSR B1509-58 (or, B1509, for short), it received a lot of attention. It's a fascinating object. The pulsar at the center of the image is a rapidly spinning dense star that is spewing out energetic particles into beautiful structures spanning trillions of miles that glow in X-ray light. And, it looks like a giant hand. This fact helped trigger a whole host of other comments about this object found some 17,000 light years from Earth.
We'd like to welcome guest blogger Sebastian Heinz, Associate Professor in the Astronomy Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He studies relativistic jets -- a phenomenon observed around black holes and neutron stars, and began work on the project described here when he was a Chandra Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT.
Circinus X-1 had been a puzzle to X-ray astronomers almost from the moment of its discovery. It is an X-ray binary -- a neutron star sucking matter away from a companion star it is in orbit with, and it shines brightly when that matter spirals inward and eventually lands on the neutron star's surface. But it had defied classification into the basic categories scientists have been using for X-ray binaries. In some ways it behaves like a very young source, like the fact that the orbit of the two stars seems to change rapidly (and whenever things change rapidly in astronomy, we tend to infer that they cannot be very old). In other ways, it behaves like an old neutron star -- one that has lost most of the intense magnetic field which neutron stars are believed to be born with. It also blasts powerful streams of hot plasma, called jets, into interstellar space. And that's why I became interested. I study jets and I wanted to know why the jets from Circinus X-1 were able to light up and stay lit on scales of a few light years when other microquasar jets flared and then dimmed.
These two images from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory show a large change in X-ray brightness of a rapidly rotating neutron star, or pulsar, between 2006 and 2013. The neutron star - the extremely dense remnant left behind by a supernova - is in a tight orbit around a low mass star. This binary star system, IGR J18245-2452 (mouse over the image for its location) is a member of the globular cluster M28.
This graphic shows an exotic object in our galaxy called SGR 0418+5729 (SGR 0418 for short). As described in our press release, SGR 0418 is a magnetar, a type of neutron star that has a relatively slow spin rate and generates occasional large blasts of X-rays.
The only plausible source for the energy emitted in these outbursts is the magnetic energy stored in the star. Most magnetars have extremely high magnetic fields on their surface that are ten to a thousand times stronger than for the average neutron star. New data shows that SGR 0418 doesn't fit that pattern. It has a surface magnetic field similar to that of mainstream neutron stars.
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