Humble Little Pulsar Puts on a Big Show

This is a quiz.

This X-ray nebula pictured above measures 150 light-years across. At its center is a very young and powerful pulsar known as PSR B1509-58, or B1509 for short.

How big is the pulsar?

B1509 is only 12 miles (19 km) across! 

The small, dense pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star which is spewing energy out into the space around it to create complex and intriguing structures, including one that resembles a large cosmic hand. In this image, the lowest energy X-rays that Chandra detects are red, the medium range is green, and the most energetic ones are colored blue. Astronomers think B1509 is about 1,700 years old, and located about 17,000 light years away.

Neutron stars are created when massive stars run out of fuel and collapse. B1509 is spinning completely around almost seven times a second and is releasing energy into its environment at a prodigious rate — presumably because it has an intense magnetic field at its surface, estimated to be 15 trillion times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field.

The combination of rapid rotation and ultra-strong magnetic field makes B1509 one of the most powerful electromagnetic generators in the Galaxy, pushing an energetic wind of electrons and ions away from the neutron star. As the electrons move through the magnetized nebula, they radiate away their energy and create the elaborate nebula seen by Chandra.

In the innermost regions, a faint circle surrounds the pulsar, and marks the spot where the wind is rapidly decelerated by the slowly expanding nebula. In this way, B1509 shares some striking similarities to the famous Crab Nebula. However B1509’s nebula is 15 times wider than the Crab’s diameter of 10 light years.

Finger-like structures extend to the north, apparently energizing knots of material in a neighboring gas cloud known as RCW 89. The transfer of energy from the wind to these knots makes them glow brightly in X-rays (orange and red features to the upper right). The temperature in this region appears to vary in a circular pattern around this ring of emission, suggesting that the pulsar may be precessing like a spinning top and sweeping an energizing beam around the gas in RCW 89.

The image was released today as part of the ongoing “100 Hours of Astronomy” celebration, which is just one of many global activities as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009

Video, additional images and other information on this result can be found at the Chandra sites run by Harvard and NASA.

32 Replies to “Humble Little Pulsar Puts on a Big Show”

  1. This may be a stupid question, but if neutron stars are just big blocks of neutrons, why do they have a magnetic field? They’re electrically neutral and there shouldn’t be any electrons moving around inside of them, right?

  2. Just one small point. The neutron star is not round but is a flatten disk like the old long-play records than being spherical. A disk is produced due to the rapid rotation. To say it is “12 miles (19 kilometres) across” paints a false picture. It is more like 12 miles/ 19 kilometres at the equator and 1 mile / 1.6 kilometres at the poles.
    As for the picture, wonderfully shows the effects of matter by the magnetic field and the gas flowing around the neutron star / pulsar.

    Note: The EU ‘nutters’ will now try to convince one and sundry that these neutron stars don’t exist, the are solely and EU phenomena, or they are made of some fabled ‘neutronium’, or other such rubbish. Neutron stars are actually produced by supernovae for stars that were originally massive stars. They are created by stellar evolution processes, whose cornerstones are very well proven.

  3. @Avi: Neutron stars are made up of all neutrons, just the cores are. The crusts are made up of mostly iron (IIRC).

  4. I find it interesting that this XR image shows the possible interaction of the pulsar and nearby nebula RCW 89, and with a possible precessing pulsar jet to boot! And the dimensions compared to the Crab Nebula (M 1) is astounding! Imagine the strength of the magnetic field. Even though this is a young pulsar with a rotation period of 150ms, Salacious Crumb’s dimensions for this pulsar do seem a tad extreme. Could Salacious B Crumb provide details on how he derived these quantities?

  5. In the Astrophysical Journal article “Spectral Lines from Rotating Neutron Stars”, by Ozel and Psaltis (2003) the following says ;
    (Under “2. The Effects of Rotation on the Observed Line Profiles”)

    ” Neutron stars are the most compact stellar objects, and the rotational velocities at their surfaces can reach an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. Therefore, rotational effects on the line profiles originating from the neutron star surface are qualitatively different from the case of a Newtonian slowly spinning star…
    It is important to note that for much larger spin frequencies, the ellipticity of the neutron stars induced by the rotation can be as large as 0.3, depending on the equation of state (Datta & Kapoor 1988; Cook et al. 1994), yielding an additional broadening as large as 15%.”

    If the ellipticity is 15%, the shape of the object 19 km across is about 2.9 kms.* My previous estimate was based roughly on a 10 km object finds this about 1.5 km in ‘height.’. (If the 19 km is true, the value should be more like 2.9 km.)
    Regardless, it certainly isn’t round, obvious for an object spinning between 2 and 10^-1 for a ten km object.
    Note: I’ll would have to look for the original article again to find what the calculations are. It is not as easy to do due to the relativistic effects, etc. Also a previous Sky& Telescope a few years ago had an interesting article as well.

  6. FYI
    No “neutronium” anywhere in EU theory, nor in the following paper.

    Salacious B. Crumb regularly puts out dis-information, on purpose no doubt, regarding a theory he obviously loathes and has zero knowledge of.

    This is legitimate science. Healy was with the NRAO, Peratt was with Los Alomos, Don Scott recently gave a talk on EU and ES theory to NASA. An EU presentation was recently given at IYA2009 UK. There is interest in these ideas, regardless of how disrespectfully some may discount them.

  7. No “neutronium” anywhere in EU theory, nor in the following paper. There is also no neutronium in regular astrophysics either!!
    Just ask your jackass mate, Anaconda, who was caught red-handed using out-and-out deception on a point in chemistry he knew absolutely zero about.
    As for credibility of these presumed legitimate scientists, it still doesn’t take away the ridiculous and stupid ideas of the crackpots writing their rubbish here or what features within Dunderheads,Info.
    Sure there is recent interest in plasma , but most of it is not so stupid enough to reject most of main stream science and theory. This is not based on some whim from a bunch of ignoramuses that keep on rabbeting on about. trumped-up BS – especially as it does not matches very little in the real world. No one is stupid enough to fall for such ploys for the EU lot any more!

  8. @ Salacious B Crumb, thanks for the info & the link to the Ozel-Psaltis paper. I think I know the Sky & Tel article you mention, so I’ll check my collection. Again, thanks for the reply.

  9. The article states that this object is 17,000 light years away and 1,700 years old. If this were literally true, we wouldn’t be able to see it for 15,300 years We need a new way of discussing time and distance.

  10. @ Patrick J. Keegan

    I think the terms quite useful. Things are just as old as we can see them from the earth. It is also the age as we see the object “right now”.
    SN 1987A was detected 22 years ago. We see it now the way it looked like 22 years after its explosion, so the term that SN87A is 22 years old is quite true.
    Anything else would be misleading, I guess.

  11. @Qev

    I don’t know much about the math involved, but perhaps the results quoted by SBC included relativity? I would guess with the neutron star spinning around that fast, some relativistic effects at the stars equator might need to be taken account.

    (I only barely know what I’m talking about here, just FYI)

  12. @SBC:

    Unless my understanding of flattening/ellipticity is completely wrong, a 20km object with a flattening of 0.3 would have a polar diameter of ~14km; noticeably squashed, but not THAT squashed… oO

  13. Solacious B FRAUD…
    You are the last one who should talk badly about someone giving out bad information.

  14. Mr.Obvious said;
    “Solacious B FRAUD…
    You are the last one who should talk badly about someone giving out bad information.”

    Get some help mate. Your beginning to look like a little too psychotic.

  15. Vino Says:
    April 5th, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    “Can someone explain how they actually calculated the size to be 19 km?”

    This point does seem to be a glaring omission in the article, especially considering the first few sentences practically make it the explicit focus of the story. It could be purely based on theory, considering it’s measured mass etc., or perhaps an indirect measurement has been made somehow. There is no reference to the source for this story, so I can’t even look up the paper to find out!

    Avi Says:
    April 3rd, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    ‘Neutron star’ is a slight misnomer – theory predicts other charged constituents of these enigmatic objects existing within them. Check out some articles on them… start out at The Source of All Knowledge (Wikipedia).

  16. Both links for additional vids and pics are broken. Must have a wallpaper of this “Hand of God” — it’s too kool!

  17. I didn’t see the hand at first, but now that I do, that is eerie! Even well drawn! Now we have eyes out there, hands and a horse’s head, a wolf’s and an eagle. Space likes our little planet!

  18. Could that hand like structure be God showing us something. Should we be fearful or not. For me, I will not fear it; but, embrace that God is in existence even in space. That he has everything under control. That he loves us to allow us to see this magnificent sight of his love for us.


  20. Temitope Owosela:

    Could that hand like structure be God showing us something. Should we be fearful or not. For me, I will not fear it; but, embrace that God is in existence even in space. That he has everything under control. That he loves us to allow us to see this magnificent sight of his love for us.

    “Hand of God” shows his ‘love’ for us.


  21. IVAN3MAN,


    I think that was bound to happen with the numerous pillar like shapes observed in nebulas.

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