Located about 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Taurus resides one of the best-studied cosmological objects known as the Crab Nebula (aka. Messier 1). Originally discovered in the 18th century by English astronomer John Bevis in 1731, the Crab Nebula became the first object included by astronomer Charles Messier in his catalog of Deep Sky Objects. Because of its extreme nature, scientists have been studying the Crab Nebula for decades to learn more about its magnetic field, its high-energy emissions (x-rays), and how these accelerate particles to close to the speed of light.
Astronomers have been particularly interested in studying the polarization of the x-rays produced by the pulsar and what that can tell us about the nebula’s magnetic field. When studies were first conducted in the 1970s, astronomers had to rely on a sounding rocket to get above Earth’s atmosphere and measure the polarization using special sensors. Recently, an international team of astronomers used data obtained by NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) to create a detailed map of the Crab Nebula’s magnetic field that has resolved many long-standing mysteries about the object.
Pulsars — those supernova leftovers that are incredibly dense and spin very fast — may change their speed due to activity of billions of vortices in the fluid beneath their surface, a new study says.
The work is based on a combination of research and modelling and looks at the Crab Nebula pulsar, which has periodic slowdowns in its rotation of at least 0.055 nanoseconds. Occasionally, the Crab and other pulsars see their spins speed up in an event called a “glitch”. Luckily for astronomers, there is a wealth of data on Crab because the Jodrell Bank Observatory in the United Kingdom looked at it almost daily for the last 29 years.
A glitch, the astronomers said in a statement, is “caused by the unpinning and displacement of vortices that connect the [pulsar’s] crust with the mixture of particles containing superfluid neutrons beneath the crust.”
“Surprisingly, no one tried to determine a lower limit to glitch size before. Many assumed that the smallest glitch would be caused by a single vortex unpinning. The smallest glitch is clearly much larger than we expected,” stated Danai Antonopoulou from the University of Amsterdam.
The astronomers added they will need more observations of other pulsars to better understand the results.