An Aging Pulsar has Captured a new Companion, and it’s Spinning back up Again

When massive stars reach the end of their life cycle, they explode in a massive supernova and cast off most of their material. What’s left is a “milliscond pulsar”, a super dense, highly-magnetized neutron star that spins rapidly and emit beams of electromagnetic radiation. Eventually, these stars lose their rotational energy and begin to slow down, but they can speed up again with the help of a companion.

According to a recent study, an international team of scientists witnessed this rare event when observing an ultra-slow pulsar located in the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy (XB091D). The results of their study indicated that this pulsar has been speeding up for the past one million years, which is likely the result of a captured a companion that has since been restoring its rapid rotational velocity.

Typically, when a pulsars pairs with an ordinary star, the result is a binary system consisting of a pulsar and a white dwarf. This occurs after the pulsar pulls off the outer layers of a star, turning it into a white dwarf. The material from these outer layer then forms an accretion disk around the pulsar, which creates a “hot spot” that radiates brightly in the X-ray specturum and where temperatures can reach into the millions of degrees.

The team was led by Ivan Zolotukhin of the Sternberg Astronomical Institute at Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU), and included astronomers from the University of Toulouse, the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The study results were published in The Astrophysical Journal under the title “The Slowest Spinning X-Ray Pulsar in an Extragalactic Globular Cluster“.

As they state in their paper, the detection of this pulsar was made possible thanks to data collected by the XMM-Newton space observatory from 2000-2013. In this time, XMM-Newton has gathered information on approximately 50 billion X-ray photons, which has been combined by astronomers at Lomosov MSU into an open online database.

This database has allowed astronomers to take a closer look at many previously-discovered objects. This includes XB091D, a pulsar with a period of seconds (aka. a “second pulsar”) located in one of the oldest globular star clusters in the Andromeda galaxy. However, finding the X-ray photos that would allow them to characterize XB091D was no easy task. As Ivan Zolotukhin explained in a MSU press release:

“The detectors on XMM-Newton detect only one photon from this pulsar every five seconds. Therefore, the search for pulsars among the extensive XMM-Newton data can be compared to the search for a needle in a haystack. In fact, for this discovery we had to create completely new mathematical tools that allowed us to search and extract the periodic signal. Theoretically, there are many applications for this method, including those outside astronomy.”

The slowest spinning X-ray pulsar in a globular star cluster has been discovered in the Andromeda galaxy. Credit: A. Zolotov

Based on a total of 38 XMM-Newton observations, the team concluded that this pulsar (which was the only known pulsar of its kind beyond our galaxy at the time), is in the earliest stages of “rejuvenation”. In short, their observations indicated that the pulsar began accelerating less than 1 million years ago. This conclusion was based on the fact that XB091D is the slowest rotating globular cluster pulsar discovered to date.

The neutron star completes one revolution in 1.2 seconds, which is more than 10 times slower than the previous record holder.  From the data they observed, they were also able to characterize the environment around XB091D. For example, they found that the pulsar and its binary pair are located in an extremely dense globular cluster (B091D) in the Andromeda Galaxy – about 2.5 million light years away.

This cluster is estimated to be 12 billion years old and contains millions of old, faint stars. It’s companion, meanwhile, is a 0.8 solar mass star, and the binary system  itself has a rotation period of 30.5 hours. And in about 50,000 years, they estimate, the pulsar will accelerate sufficiently to once again have a rotational period measured in the milliseconds – i.e. a millisecond pulsar.

A diagram of the ESA XMM-Newton X-Ray Telescope. Delivered to orbit by a Ariane 5 launch vehicle in 1999. Credit: ESA/XMM-Newton

Interestingly, XB910D’s location within this vast region of super-high density stars is what allowed it to capture a companion about 1 million years ago and commence the process “rejuvenation” in the first place. As Zolotukhin explained:

“In our galaxy, no such slow X-ray pulsars are observed in 150 known globular clusters, because their cores are not big and dense enough to form close binary stars at a sufficiently high rate. This indicates that the B091D cluster core, with an extremely dense composition of stars in the XB091D, is much larger than that of the usual cluster. So we are dealing with a large and rather rare object—with a dense remnant of a small galaxy that the Andromeda galaxy once devoured. The density of the stars here, in a region that is about 2.5 light years across, is about 10 million times higher than in the vicinity of the Sun.”

Thanks to this study, and the mathematical tools the team developed to find it, astronomers will likely be able to revisit many previously-discovered objects in the coming years. Within these massive data sets, there could be many examples of rare astronomical events, just waiting to be witnessed and properly characterized.

Further reading: The Astrophysical Journal, Lomonosov Moscow State University

Pulsar Jackpot Scours Old Data for New Discoveries

Chalk another one up for Citizen Science.  Earlier this month, researchers announced the discovery of 24 new pulsars. To date, thousands of pulsars have been discovered, but what’s truly fascinating about this month’s discovery is that came from culling through old data using a new method.

A pulsar is a dense, highly magnetized, swiftly rotating remnant of a supernova explosion. Pulsars where first discovered by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish in 1967. The discovery of a precisely timed radio beacon initially suggested to some that they were the product of an artificial intelligence. In fact, for a very brief time, pulsars were known as LGM’s, for “Little Green Men.” Today, we know that pulsars are the product of the natural death of massive stars.

The data set used for the discovery comes from the Parkes 64-metre radio observatory based out of New South Wales, Australia. The installation was the first to receive telemetry from the Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon and was made famous in the movie The Dish.  The Parkes Multi-Beam Pulsar Survey (PMPS) was conducted in the late 1990’s, making thousands of 35-minute recordings across the plane of the Milky Way galaxy. This survey turned up over 800 pulsars and generated 4 terabytes of data. (Just think of how large 4 terabytes was in the 90’s!)

Artist's conception of a pulsar. (Credit: NASA/GSFC).
Artist’s conception of a pulsar. (Credit: NASA/GSFC).

The nature of these discoveries presented theoretical astrophysicists with a dilemma. Namely, the number of short period and binary pulsars was lower than expected. Clearly, there were more pulsars in the data waiting to be found.

Enter Citizen Science. Using a program known as [email protected], researchers were able to sift though the recordings using innovative modeling techniques to tease out 24 new pulsars from the data.

“The method… is only possible with the computing resources provided by [email protected]” Benjamin Knispel of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics told the MIT Technology Review in a recent interview. The study utilized over 17,000 CPU core years to complete.

Einstein@Home screenshot. (Credit: LIGO Consortium).
[email protected] screenshot. (Credit: LIGO Consortium).

[email protected] is a program uniquely adapted to accomplish this feat. Begun in 2005, [email protected] is a distributed computing project which utilizes computing power while machines are idling to search through downloaded data packets. Similar to the original distributed computing program [email protected] which searches for extraterrestrial signals, [email protected] culls through data from the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) looking for gravity waves. In 2009, the [email protected] survey was expanded to include radio astronomy data from the Arecibo radio telescope and later the Parkes observatory.

Among the discoveries were some rare finds. For example, PSR J1748-3009 Has the highest known dispersion measure of any millisecond pulsar (The dispersion measure is the density of free electrons observed moving towards the viewer). Another find, J1750-2531 is thought to belong to a class of intermediate-mass binary pulsars. 6 of the 24 pulsars discovered were part of binary systems.

These discoveries also have implications for the ongoing hunt for gravity waves by such projects as LIGO. Specifically, a through census of binary pulsars in the galaxy will give scientists a model for the predicted rate of binary pulsar mergers. Unlike radio surveys, LIGO seeks to detect these events via the copious amount of gravity waves such mergers should generate. Begun in 2002, LIGO consists of two gravity wave observatories, one in Hanford Washington and one in Livingston Louisiana just outside of Baton Rouge. Each LIGO detector consists of two 2 kilometre Fabry-Pérot arms in an “L” configuration which allow for ultra-precise measurements of a 200 watt laser beam shot through them.  Two detectors are required to pin-point the direction of an incoming gravity wave on the celestial sphere. You can see the orientation of the “L’s” on the display on the [email protected] screensaver. Two geographically separate detectors are also required to rule out local interference. A gravity wave from a galactic source would ripple straight through the Earth.

Arial view of LIGO Livingston. (Image credit: The LIGO Scientific Collaboration).
Arial view of LIGO Livingston. (Image credit: The LIGO Scientific Collaboration).

Such a movement would be tiny, on the order of 1/1,000th the diameter of a proton, unnoticed by all except the LIGO detectors. To date, LIGO has yet to detect gravity waves, although there have been some false alarms. Scientists regularly interject test signals into the data to see if system catches them. The lack of detection of gravity waves by LIGO has put some constraints on certain events. For example, LIGO reported a non-detection of gravity waves during the February 2007 short gamma-ray burst event GRB 070201. The event arrived from the direction of the Andromeda Galaxy, and thus was thought to have been relatively nearby in the universe. Such bursts are thought to be caused by neutron star and/or black holes mergers. The lack of detection by LIGO suggests a more distant event. LIGO should be able to detect a gravitational wave event out to 70 million light years, and Advanced LIGO (AdLIGO) is set to go online in 2014 and will increase its sensitivity tenfold.

The control room at LIGO Livingston. (Photo by Author).
The control room at LIGO Livingston. (Photo by Author).

Knowledge of where these potential pulsar mergers are by such discoveries as the Parkes radio survey will also give LIGO researchers clues of targets to focus on. “The search for pulsars isn’t easy, especially for these “quiet” ones that aren’t doing the equivalent of “screaming” for our attention,” Says LIGO Livingston Data Analysis and EPO Scientist Amber Stuver. The LIGO consortium developed the data analysis technique used by [email protected] The direct detection of gravitational waves by LIGO or AdLIGO would be an announcement perhaps on par with CERN’s discovery of the Higgs Boson last year. This would also open up a whole new field of gravitational wave astronomy and perhaps give new stimulus to the European Space Agencies’ proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) space-based gravity wave detector. Congrats to the team at Parkes on their discovery… perhaps we’ll have the first gravity wave detection announcement out of LIGO as well in years to come!

-Read the original paper on the discovery of 24 new pulsars here.

-Amber Stuver blogs about [email protected] & the spin-off applications of gravity wave technology at Living LIGO.

-Parkes radio telescope image is copyrighted and used with the permission of CSIRO Operations Scientist John Sarkissian.

-For a fascinating read on the hunt for gravity waves, check out Gravity’s Ghost.