The Heaviest Neutron Star Ever Seen Got There by Feasting on its Companion

Life’s not too good if you’re the companion of a black widow. Here on Earth, spiders by that name feast on their smaller significant others after mating. Out in space, some weird objects do the same thing to their closeby neighbors. They’re rapidly spinning neutron stars that slowly destroy their companion stars with powerful outflows of high-energy particles. A team at the University of California Berkeley is studying one of these so-called “black widow pulsars”, called PSR J0952-0607. Thanks to its hefty appetite, it shredded and consumed nearly all of its stellar companion. That eating spree made it the heaviest known neutron star to date.

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A Pulsar and Star are Orbiting Each Other Every 62 Minutes. The Fastest “Black Widow” Binary Ever Seen

Caption:An illustrated view of a black widow pulsar and its stellar companion. The pulsar’s gamma-ray emissions (magenta) strongly heat the facing side of the star (orange). The pulsar is gradually evaporating its partner.
Credits:Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Cruz deWilde
Caption: An illustrated view of a black widow pulsar and its stellar companion. The pulsar’s gamma-ray emissions (magenta) strongly heat the facing side of the star (orange). The pulsar is gradually evaporating its partner. Courtesy NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Cruz deWilde

The Milky Way Galaxy has its share of oddities, from black holes and magnetars to luminous blue variable stars and strange new worlds. But, have you ever heard of a “black widow binary?” Not exactly an easy name to wrap your head around, especially if you’re afraid of spiders. But, these things actually exist in our galaxy and they’re fascinating.

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Pulsars Could Explain the Excess of Gamma Radiation Coming from the Center of the Milky Way

A gamma-ray view of the sky centered on the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. Could strange spinning neutron stars explain an excess of gamma-radiation emanating from the Milky Way's core region? That's one possibility astronomers are discussing. Courtesy NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
A gamma-ray view of the sky centered on the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. Could strange spinning neutron stars explain a mysterious excess of gamma radiation emanating from the core region? That’s one possibility astronomers are discussing. Courtesy NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Ever hear of the Galactic Center GeV Excess? No, it’s not a cosmic rock band, although that’s a great name for one. Actually, it’s what astronomers call a super-high rate of gamma-ray radiation coming from the heart of our Milky Way Galaxy. Since this Galactic Center Excess was first detected in 2009, people thought it might be a signature of dark matter annihilating itself in mass quantities. But, as with any unexplained phenomenon in space, others disagreed. It could also have something to do with Sagittarius A*, the galaxy core’s own supermassive black hole. Or, it might be some other kind of strange burst event. Now, an astronomer at the Australian National University suggests that rapidly spinning neutron stars may be the culprits behind this high-energy galactic mystery.

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A Pulsar is Blasting out Jets of Matter and Antimatter

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. Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford Univ./M. de Vries; Optical: NSF/AURA/Gemini Consortium

Why is there so much antimatter in the Universe? Ordinary matter is far more plentiful than antimatter, but scientists keep detecting more and more antimatter in the form of positrons. More positrons reach Earth than standard models predict. Where do they come from?

Scientists think pulsars are one source, and a new study strengthens that idea.

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Astronomers Scan 800 Pulsars to See If Any of Them Have Planets

Lich (PSR B1257+12) is a pulsar 2,300 ly away in the constellation of Virgo - 20 km in diameter, formed 2 billion years ago by two white dwarfs merging with each other - Has three known planets, named Draugr, Poltergeist and Phobetor - Both the first extrasolar planets and the first pulsar planets to be discovered - Draugr is the lowest-mass planet yet discovered by any observational technique (twice the mass of Earth's moon.) Image Credit: By Pablo Carlos Budassi - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94333766

Astronomers discovered the first exoplanets in 1992. They found a pair of them orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12 about 2300 light-years from the Sun. Two years later they discovered the third planet in the system.

Now a team of astronomers are trying to duplicate that feat by searching 800 known pulsars for exoplanets.

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Twin Stars Prove Einstein at Least 99.99% Right

Artistic impression of the Double Pulsar system, where two active pulsars orbit each other in just 147 min. The orbital motion of these extremely dense neutrons star causes a number of relativistic effects, including the creation of ripples in spacetime known as gravitational waves. The gravitational waves carry away energy from the systems which shrinks by about 7mm per days as a result. The corresponding measurement agrees with the prediction of general relativity within 0.013%. The picture at high resolution and two alternative versions (1b, 1c) are accessible in the left column. [less] © Michael Kramer/MPIfR

More than a hundred years have passed since Einstein formalized his theory of General Relativity (GR), the geometric theory of gravitation that revolutionized our understanding of the Universe. And yet, astronomers are still subjecting it to rigorous tests, hoping to find deviations from this established theory. The reason is simple: any indication of physics beyond GR would open new windows onto the Universe and help resolve some of the deepest mysteries about the cosmos.

One of the most rigorous tests ever was recently conducted by an international team of astronomers led by Michael Kramer of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany. Using seven radio telescopes from across the world, Kramer and his colleagues observed a unique pair of pulsars for 16 years. In the process, they observed effects predicted by GR for the first time, and with an accuracy of at least 99.99%!

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Astronomers can use Pulsars to Measure Tiny Changes of Acceleration Within the Milky Way, Scanning Internally for Dark Matter and Dark Energy

Using pulsars to measure mass distribution in the Milky Way. Credit: Dana Berry, IAS

As our Sun moves along its orbit in the Milky Way, it is gravitationally tugged by nearby stars, nebulae, and other masses. Our galaxy is not a uniform distribution of mass, and our Sun experiences small accelerations in addition to its overall orbital motion. Measuring those small tugs has been nearly impossible, but a new study shows how it can be done.

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Astronomers Measure a 1-billion Tesla Magnetic Field on the Surface of a Neutron Star

Artist's impression of an Accreting X-Ray Pulsar drawing material from its companion star. - NASA

We recently observed the strongest magnetic field ever recorded in the Universe. The record-breaking field was discovered at the surface of a neutron star called GRO J1008-57 with a magnetic field strength of approximately 1 BILLION Tesla. For comparison, the Earth’s magnetic field clocks in at about 1/20,000 of a Tesla – tens of trillions of times weaker than you’d experience on this neutron star…and that is a good thing for your general health and wellbeing.

Neutron stars are the “dead cores” of once massive stars which have ended their lives as supernova. These stars exhausted their supply of hydrogen fuel in their core and a power balance between the internal energy of the star surging outward, and the star’s own massive gravity crushing inward, is cataclysmically unbalanced – gravity wins. The star collapses in on itself. The outer layers fall onto the core crushing it into the densest object we know of in the Universe – a neutron star. Even atoms are crushed. Negatively charged electrons are forced into the atomic nuclei meeting their positive proton counterparts creating more neutrons. When the core can be crushed no further, the outer remaining material of the star rebounds back into space in a massive explosion – a supernova. The resulting neutron star, made of the crushed stellar core, is so dense that a single sugar-cube-sized sampling would weigh billions of tons – as much as a mountain (though if you’re “worthy” you MIGHT able to lift it since Thor’s Hammer is made of the stuff). Neutron stars are typically about 20km in diameter and can still be a million degrees Kelvin at the surface.

But if they’re “dead,” how can neutron stars be some of the most magnetic and powerful objects in the Universe?

Composite image of the maelstrom at the heart of the Crab Nebula powered by a neutron star – Chandra X-Ray Observatory
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Why Pulsars Are So Bright

Pulsars are fast-spinning neutron stars that emit narrow, sweeping beams of radio waves. A new study identifies the origin of those radio waves. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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

An artist’s impression of the star with its tidally locked red dwarf companion. Credit: Gabriel Pérez Díaz (IAC)

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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