Why Pulsars Are So Bright

When pulsars were first discovered in 1967, their rhythmic radio-wave pulsations were a mystery. Some thought their radio beams must be of extraterrestrial origin.

We’ve learned a lot since then. We know that pulsars are magnetized, rotating neutrons stars. We know that they rotate very rapidly, with their magnetic poles sending sweeping beams of radio waves out into space. And if they’re aimed the right way, we can “see” them as pulses of radio waves, even though the radio waves are steady. They’re kind of like lighthouses.

But the exact mechanism that creates all of that electromagnetic radiation has remained a mystery.

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A Star Has Been Found That Pulsates, But Only on One Side

In the 17th century, astronomers witnessed many stellar events that proved that the starry sky was not “fixed and eternal.” This included stars whose brightness varied over time – aka. “variable stars.” By the 20th century, many variable stars had been cataloged and astronomers have discerned subclasses of them as well – notably, stars that swell and shrink, known as pulsating variables.

In all cases, these variable stars were found to have rhythmic pulsations that were visible from all sides. But a recent discovery by an international team has confirmed that there are variable stars that can pulse from only one side. This pulsating star, part of a system known as HD 74423, is located about 1,500 light-years from Earth and is the first of its kind to be found.

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Halo Around a Pulsar could Explain Why We See Antimatter Coming from Space

Astronomers have been watching a nearby pulsar with a strange halo around it. That pulsar might answer a question that’s puzzled astronomers for some time. The pulsar is named Geminga, and it’s one of the nearest pulsars to Earth, about 800 light years away in the constellation Gemini. Not only is it close to Earth, but Geminga is also very bright in gamma rays.

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Astronomers Map the Surface of a Pulsar

When stars exhaust their supply of fuel, they collapse under their own weight and explode, blowing off their outer layers in an event known as a “supernova”. In some cases, these events leave behind neutron stars, the smallest and densest of stellar objects (with the exception of certain theoretical stars) that sometimes spin rapidly. Pulsars, a class of neutron star, can spin up to several hundred times per second.

One such object, designated J0030+0451 (J0030), is located about 1,100 light-years from Earth in the Pisces constellation. Recently, scientists using NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) were able to measure the pulsar’s size and mass. In the process, they also managed to locate the various “hot spots” on its surface, effectively creating the first map of a neutron star.

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Pulsar Seen Speeding Away From the Supernova That Created it

When a star exhausts its nuclear fuel towards the end of its lifespan, it undergoes gravitational collapse and sheds its outer layers. This results in a magnificent explosion known as a supernova, which can lead to the creation of a black hole, a pulsar or a white dwarf. And despite decades of observation and research, there is still much scientists don’t know about this phenomena.

Luckily, ongoing observations and improved instruments are leading to all kinds of discoveries that offer chances for new insights. For instance, a team of astronomers with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and NASA recently observed a “cannonball” pulsar speeding away from the supernova that is believed to have created it. This find is already providing insights into how pulsars can pick up speed from a supernova.

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Astronomers are Using NASA’s Deep Space Network to Hunt for Magnetars

Right, magnetars. Perhaps one of the most ferocious beasts to inhabit the cosmos. Loud, unruly, and temperamental, they blast their host galaxies with wave after wave of electromagnetic radiation, running the gamut from soft radio waves to hard X-rays. They are rare and poorly understood.

Some of these magnetars spit out a lot of radio waves, and frequently. The perfect way to observe them would be to have a network of high-quality radio dishes across the world, all continuously observing to capture every bleep and bloop. Some sort of network of deep-space dishes.

Like NASA’s Deep Space Network.  

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Scientists are Using Artificial Intelligence to See Inside Stars Using Sound Waves

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory has captured images of a growing dark region on the surface of the Sun. Called a coronal hole, it produces high-speed solar winds that can disrupt satellite communications. Image: Solar Dynamics Observatory / NASA

How in the world could you possibly look inside a star? You could break out the scalpels and other tools of the surgical trade, but good luck getting within a few million kilometers of the surface before your skin melts off. The stars of our universe hide their secrets very well, but astronomers can outmatch their cleverness and have found ways to peer into their hearts using, of all things, sound waves. Continue reading “Scientists are Using Artificial Intelligence to See Inside Stars Using Sound Waves”

Astronomers Observe a Pulsar 6500 Light-Years From Earth and See Two Separate Flares Coming off its Surface

Astronomy can be a tricky business, owing to the sheer distances involved. Luckily, astronomers have developed a number of tools and strategies over the years that help them to study distant objects in greater detail. In addition to ground-based and space-based telescopes, there’s also the technique known as gravitational lensing, where the gravity of an intervening object is used to magnify light coming from a more distant object.

Recently, a team of Canadian astronomers used this technique to observe an eclipsing binary millisecond pulsar located about 6500 light years away. According to a study produced by the team, they observed two intense regions of radiation around one star (a brown dwarf) to conduct observations of the other star (a pulsar) – which happened to be the highest resolution observations in astronomical history.

The study, titled “Pulsar emission amplified and resolved by plasma lensing in an eclipsing binary“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. The study was led by Robert Main, a PhD astronomy student at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, and included members from the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

The system they observed is known as the “Black Widow Pulsar”, a binary system that consists of a brown dwarf and a millisecond pulsar orbiting closely to each other. Because of their close proximity to one another, scientists have determined that the pulsar is actively siphoning material from its brown dwarf companion and will eventually consume it. Discovered in 1988, the name “Black Widow” has since come to be applied to other similar binaries.

The observations made by the Canadian team were made possible thanks to the rare geometry and characteristics of the binary – specifically, the “wake” or comet-like tail of gas that extends from the brown dwarf to the pulsar. As Robert Main, the lead author of the paper, explained in a Dunlap Institute press release:

“The gas is acting like a magnifying glass right in front of the pulsar. We are essentially looking at the pulsar through a naturally occurring magnifier which periodically allows us to see the two regions separately.”

Like all pulsars, the “Black Widow” is a rapidly rotating neutron star that spins at a rate of over 600 times a second. As it spins, it emits beams of radiation from its two polar hotspots, which have a strobing effect when observed from a distance. The brown dwarf, meanwhile, is about one third the diameter of the Sun, is located roughly two million km from the pulsar and orbits it once every 9 hours.

Image of the pulsar surrounded by its bow shock. White rays indicate particles of matter and antimatter being spewed from the star. Its companion star is too close to the pulsar to be visible at this scale. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Because they are so close together, the brown dwarf is tidally-locked to the pulsar and is blasted by strong radiation. This intense radiation heats one side of the relatively cool brown dwarf to temperatures of about 6000 °C (10,832 °F), the same temperature as our Sun. Because of the radiation and gases passing between them, the emissions coming from the pulsar interfere with each other, which makes them difficult to study.

However, astronomers have long understood that these same regions could be used as “interstellar lenses” that could localize pulsar emission regions, thus allowing for their study. In the past, astronomers have only been able to resolve emission components marginally. But thanks to the efforts of Main and his colleagues, they were able observing two intense radiation flares located 20 kilometers apart.

In addition to being an unprecedentedly high-resolution observation, the results of this study could provide insight into the nature of the mysterious phenomena known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). As Main explained:

“Many observed properties of FRBs could be explained if they are being amplified by plasma lenses. The properties of the amplified pulses we detected in our study show a remarkable similarity to the bursts from the repeating FRB, suggesting that the repeating FRB may be lensed by plasma in its host galaxy.”

It is an exciting time for astronomers, where improved instruments and methods are not only allowing for more accurate observations, but also providing data that could resolve long-standing mysteries. It seems that every few days, fascinating new discoveries are being made!

Further Reading: University of Toronto, Nature