Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (Cas A) has always been an enigma. While the explosion that created this supernova was obviously a powerful event, the visual brightness of the outburst that occurred over 300 years ago was much less than a normal supernova, — and in fact, was overlooked in the 1600’s — and astronomers don’t know why. Another mystery is whether the explosion that produced Cas A left behind a neutron star, black hole, or nothing at all. But in 1999, astronomers discovered an unknown bright object at the core of Cas A. Now, new observations with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory show this object is a neutron star. But the enigmas don’t end there: this neutron star has a carbon atmosphere. This is the first time this type of atmosphere has been detected around such a small, dense object.
The object at the core is very small – only about 20 km wide, which was key to identifying it as a neutron star, said Craig Heinke from the University of Alberta. Heinke is co-author with Wynn Ho of the University of Southampton, UK on a paper which appears in the Nov. 5 edition of Nature.
“The only two kinds of stars that we know of that are this small are neutron stars and black holes,” Heinke told Universe Today. “We can rule out that this is a black hole, because no light can escape from black holes, so any X-rays we see from black holes are actually from material falling down into the black hole. Such X-rays would be highly variable, since you never see the same material twice, but we don’t see any fluctuations in the brightness of this object.”
Heinke said the Chandra X-ray Observatory is the only telescope that has sharp enough vision to observe this object inside such a bright supernova remnant.
But the most unusual aspect of this neutron star is its carbon atmosphere. Neutron stars are mostly made of neutrons, but they have a thin layer of normal matter on the surface, including a thin–10 cm–very hot atmosphere. Previously studied neutron stars all have hydrogen atmospheres, which is expected, as the intense gravity of the neutron star stratifies the atmosphere, putting the lightest element, hydrogen, on top.
But not so with this object in Cas A.
“We were able to produce models for the X-ray radiation of a neutron star with several different possible atmospheres,” Heinke said in an email interview. “Only the carbon atmosphere can explain all the data we see, so we are pretty sure this neutron star has a carbon atmosphere, the first time we’ve seen a different atmosphere on a neutron star.”
An artist’s impression of the neutron star in Cas A showing the tiny extent of the carbon atmosphere. The Earth’s atmosphere is shown at the same scale as the neutron star. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
So how does Heinke and his team explain the lack of hydrogen and helium on this neutron star? Think of Cas A as being a baby.
“We think we understand that as due to the really young age of this object–we see it at the tender age of only 330 years old, compared to other neutron stars that are thousands of years old,” he said. “During the supernova explosion that created this neutron star (as the core of the star collapses down to a city-sized object, with an incredibly high density higher than atomic nuclei), the neutron star was heated to high temperatures, up to a billion degrees. It’s now cooled down to a few million degrees, but we think its high temperatures were sufficient to produce nuclear fusion on the neutron star surface, fusing the hydrogen and helium to carbon.”
Because of this discovery, researchers now have access to the complete life cycle of a supernova, and will learn more about the role exploding stars play in the makeup of the universe. For example, most minerals found on Earth are the products of supernovae.
“This discovery helps us understand how neutron stars are born in violent supernova explosions,” said Heinke.
Source: Interview with Craig Heinke