It’s one of the most famous sights in the night sky… and 957 years ago it was bright enough to be seen during the day. This supernova event was one of the most spectacular of its kind and it still delights, amazes and even surprises astronomers to this day. Think there’s nothing new to know about M1? Then think again…
An international collaboration of astrophysicists, including a group from the Department of Physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has detected pulsed gamma rays coming from the heart of the “Crab”. Apparently the central neutron star is putting off energies that can’t quite be explained. These pulses between range 100 and 400 billion electronvolts (Gigaelectronvolts, or GeV), far higher than 25 GeV, the most energetic radiation recorded. To give you an example, a 400 GeV photon is almost a trillion times more energetic than a light photon.
“This is the first time very-high-energy gamma rays have been detected from a pulsar – a rapidly spinning neutron star about the size of the city of Ames but with a mass greater than that of the Sun,” said Frank Krennrich, an Iowa State professor of physics and astronomy and a co-author of the paper.
We can thank the Arizona based Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) array of four 12-meter Cherenkov telescopes covered in 350 mirrors for the findings. It is continually monitoring Earth’s atmosphere for the fleeting signals of gamma-ray radiation. However, findings like these on such a well-known object is nearly unprecedented.
“We presented the results at a conference and the entire community was stunned,” says Henric Krawczynski, PhD, professor of physics at Washington University. The WUSTL group led by James H. Buckley, PhD, professor of physics, and Krawczynski is one of six founding members of the VERITAS consortium.
We know the Crab’s story and how its pulsar sweeps around like a lighthouse… But Krennrich said such high energies can’t be explained by the current understanding of pulsars. Not even curvature radiation can be at the root of these gamma-ray emissions.
“The pulsar in the center of the nebula had been seen in radio, optical, X-ray and soft gamma-ray wavelengths,” says Matthias Beilicke, PhD, research assistant professor of physics at Washington University. “But we didn’t think it was radiating pulsed emissions above 100 GeV. VERITAS can observe gamma-rays between100 GeV and 30 trillion electronvolts (Teraelectronvolts or TeV).”
The famous Crab Nebula supernova remnant has erupted in an enormous flare five times more powerful than any flare previously seen from the object. On April 12, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope first detected the outburst, which lasted six days. Several other satellites also made observations, which has astonished astronomers by revealing unexpected changes in X-ray emission the Crab, once thought to be the steadiest high-energy source in the sky.
The nebula is the wreckage of an exploded star that emitted light which reached Earth in the year 1054. It is located 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. At the heart of an expanding gas cloud lies what is left of the original star’s core, a superdense neutron star that spins 30 times a second. With each rotation, the star swings intense beams of radiation toward Earth, creating the pulsed emission characteristic of spinning neutron stars (also known as pulsars).
Apart from these pulses, astrophysicists believed the Crab Nebula was a virtually constant source of high-energy radiation. But in January, scientists associated with several orbiting observatories, including NASA’s Fermi, Swift and Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, reported long-term brightness changes at X-ray energies.
“The Crab Nebula hosts high-energy variability that we’re only now fully appreciating,” said Rolf Buehler, a member of the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT) team at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, a facility jointly located at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University.
Since 2009, Fermi and the Italian Space Agency’s AGILE satellite have detected several short-lived gamma-ray flares at energies greater than 100 million electron volts (eV) — hundreds of times higher than the nebula’s observed X-ray variations. For comparison, visible light has energies between 2 and 3 eV.
On April 12, Fermi’s LAT, and later AGILE, detected a flare that grew about 30 times more energetic than the nebula’s normal gamma-ray output and about five times more powerful than previous outbursts. On April 16, an even brighter flare erupted, but within a couple of days, the unusual activity completely faded out.
“These superflares are the most intense outbursts we’ve seen to date, and they are all extremely puzzling events,” said Alice Harding at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “We think they are caused by sudden rearrangements of the magnetic field not far from the neutron star, but exactly where that’s happening remains a mystery.”
The Crab’s high-energy emissions are thought to be the result of physical processes that tap into the neutron star’s rapid spin. Theorists generally agree the flares must arise within about one-third of a light-year from the neutron star, but efforts to locate them more precisely have proven unsuccessful so far.
Since September 2010, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory routinely has monitored the nebula in an effort to identify X-ray emission associated with the outbursts. When Fermi scientists alerted astronomers to the onset of a new flare, Martin Weisskopf and Allyn Tennant at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., triggered a set of pre-planned observations using Chandra.
It was also observed by NASA’s Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) and Swift satellites and the European Space Agency’s International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL). The results confirm a real intensity decline of about 7 percent at energies between 15,000 to 50,000 eV over two years. They also show that the Crab has brightened and faded by as much as 3.5 percent a year since 1999.
“Thanks to the Fermi alert, we were fortunate that our planned observations actually occurred when the flares were brightest in gamma rays,” Weisskopf said. “Despite Chandra’s excellent resolution, we detected no obvious changes in the X-ray structures in the nebula and surrounding the pulsar that could be clearly associated with the flare.”
Scientists think the flares occur as the intense magnetic field near the pulsar undergoes sudden restructuring. Such changes can accelerate particles like electrons to velocities near the speed of light. As these high-speed electrons interact with the magnetic field, they emit gamma rays.
To account for the observed emission, scientists say the electrons must have energies 100 times greater than can be achieved in any particle accelerator on Earth. This makes them the highest-energy electrons known to be associated with any galactic source. Based on the rise and fall of gamma rays during the April outbursts, scientists estimate that the size of the emitting region must be comparable in size to the solar system.
The Crab Nebula is one of the most popular targets for astronomers of all stripes. It is readily viewable in moderate sized amateur telescopes and wows new viewers at star parties when they’re informed they’re looking at the remnant of a supernova that exploded in 1054 AD. The nebula is also a popular target for professional astronomers looking to study physics in the environment of a pulsar. Powered by synchrotron radiation from the pulsar, the nebula glows brightly across numerous wavelengths in a steady manner that is so consistent, that astronomers have used it to calibrate instruments in different portions of the spectrum. The largest regular variation discovered was a mere 3.5% in the X-ray portion of the spectrum.
But on September 22 of 2010, the Italian Space Agency’s AGILE satellite observed a sudden brightening in the nebula in the gamma ray portion of the spectrum. The Large Area Telescope (LAT) on board the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, which observes the Crab regularly, confirmed this flaring. Strangely, telescopes observing the nebula in other spectral regimes showed no brightening at all. The lone exception was a small knot roughly one arcsecond in diameter seen by the Chandra X-ray telescope which is believed to correspond to the base of a jet emanating from the pulsar.
Many telescopes observed the central pulsar in X-rays as well as radio to attempt to discover if there had been a sudden change in the power source itself that caused the sudden brightening, but no changes were apparent. This suggests that the flare didn’t come directly from the pulsar, but rather from the nebula itself, perhaps as an interaction between the jet and the magnetic field of the nebula causing intense synchrotron radiation. If this is the cause, then the energy of the accelerated electrons is among the highest of any astronomical event. Such a case is of interest to astronomers and physicists because it provides a rare test bed into relativistic physics and particle acceleration theory.
While this event was certainly noteworthy, it was not entirely unique. AGILE detected a previous flare on October 7, 2007 and Fermi’s LAT had discovered another in February 2009. Currently, none of these events have been entirely explained but will likely give astronomers a target for future studies. Based on the amount of coverage the Crab Nebula receives from telescopes, astronomers are no expecting that such flares are a relatively common occurrence, happening about once a year. If so, this will provide an excellent opportunity to study such events with more scrutiny.