At present, scientists can only look for planets beyond our Solar System using indirect means. Depending on the method, this will involve looking for signs of transits in front of a star (Transit Photometry), measuring a star for signs of wobble (Doppler Spectroscopy), looking for light reflected from a planet’s atmosphere (Direct Imaging), and a slew of other methods.
Based on certain parameters, astronomers are then able to determine whether a planet is potentially-habitable or not. However, a team of astronomers from the Netherlands recently released a study in which they describe a novel approach for exoplanet-hunting: looking for signs of aurorae. As these are the result of interaction between a planet’s magnetic field and a star, this method could be a shortcut to finding life!
Pulsars are what remains when a massive star undergoes gravitational collapse and explodes in a supernova. These remnants (also known as neutron stars) are extremely dense, with several Earth-masses crammed into a space the size of a small country. They also have powerful magnetic fields, which causes them to rotate rapidly and emit powerful beams of gamma rays or x-rays – which lends them the appearance of a lighthouse.
In some cases, pulsars spin especially fast, taking only milliseconds to complete a single rotation. These “millisecond pulsars” remain a source of mystery for astronomers. And after following up on previous observations, researchers using the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) radio telescope in the Netherlands identified a pulsar (PSR J0952?0607) that spins more than 42,000 times per minute, making it the second-fastest pulsar ever discovered.
This study was part of an ongoing LOFAR survey of energetic sources originally identified by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray space telescope. The purpose of this survey was to distinguish between the gamma-ray sources Fermi detected, which could have been caused by neutron stars, pulsars, supernovae or the regions around black holes. As Elizabeth Ferrara, a member of the discovery team at NASA’s Goddard Space Center, explained in a NASA press release:
“Roughly a third of the gamma-ray sources found by Fermi have not been detected at other wavelengths. Many of these unassociated sources may be pulsars, but we often need follow-up from radio observatories to detect the pulses and prove it. There’s a real synergy across the extreme ends of the electromagnetic spectrum in hunting for them.”
Their follow-up observations indicated that this particular source was a pulsar that spins at a rate of 707 revolutions (Hz) per second, which works out to 42,000 revolutions per minute. This makes it, by definition, a millisecond pulsar. The team also confirmed that it is about 1.4 Solar Masses and is orbited every 6.4 hours by a companion star that has been stripped down to less than 0.05 Jupiter masses.
The presence of this lightweight companion is a further indication of how the spin of this pulsar became so rapid. Over time, matter would have been stripped away from the star, gradually accreting onto PSR J0952?0607. This would not only raise its spin rate but also greatly increase its electromagnetic emissions. The process continues to this day, with the star becoming increasingly smaller as the pulsar becomes more energetic.
Because of the nature of this relationship (which can only be described as “cannibalistic”), systems like PSR J0952?0607 are often called “black widow” or “redback” pulsars. Most of these systems were found by following up on sources identified by the Fermi mission, since the process has been known to result in a considerable amount of electromagnetic radiation being released.
Beyond the discovery of this record-setting pulsar, the LOFAR discovery could also be an indication that there is a new population of ultra-fast spinning pulsars in our Universe. As Dr. Bassa explained:
“LOFAR picked up pulses from J0952 at radio frequencies around 135 MHz, which is about 45 percent lower than the lowest frequencies of conventional radio searches. We found that J0952 has a steep radio spectrum, which means its radio pulses fade out very quickly at higher frequencies. It would have been a challenge to find it without LOFAR.”
The fastest spinning pulsar known, PSR J1748-2446ad, spins just slightly faster than PSR J0952?0607 – reaching a rate of nearly 43,000 rpm (or 716 revolutions per second). But some theorists think that pulsars could spin as fast as 72,000 rpm (almost twice as fast) before breaking up. This remains a theory, since rapidly-spinning pulsars are rather difficult to detect.
But with the help of instrument like LOFAR, that could be changing. For instance, both PSR J1748-2446ad and PSR J0952?0607 were shown to have steep spectra – much like radio galaxies and Active Galactic Nuclei. The same was true of J1552+5437, another millisecond pular detected by LOFAR which spins at 25,000 rpm.
As Ziggy Pleunis – a doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal and a co-author on the study – indicated, this could be a sign that the fastest-spinning pulsars are just waiting to be found.
“There is growing evidence that the fastest-spinning pulsars tend to have the steepest spectra,” he said. “Since LOFAR searches are more sensitive to these steep-spectrum radio pulsars, we may find that even faster pulsars do, in fact, exist and have been missed by surveys at higher frequencies.”
As with many other areas of astronomical research, improvements in instrumentation and methodology are allowing for new and exciting discoveries. As expected, some of the things we are finding are forcing astronomers to rethink more than a few previously-held assumptions about the nature and limits of certain phenomena.
Be sure to enjoy this NASA video that explains “black widow” pulsars and the ongoing search to find them:
One of the defining characteristics of the New Space era is partnerships. Whether it is between the private and public sector, different space agencies, or different institutions across the world, collaboration has become the cornerstone to success. Consider the recent agreement between the Netherlands Space Office (NSO) and the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) that was announced earlier this week.
In an agreement made possible by the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in 2015 between the Netherlands and China, a Dutch-built radio antenna will travel to the Moon aboard the Chinese Chang’e 4 satellite, which is scheduled to launch in 2018. Once the lunar exploration mission reaches the Moon, it will deposit the radio antenna on the far side, where it will begin to provide scientists with fascinating new views of the Universe.
Essentially, radio astronomy involves the study of celestial objects – ranging from stars and galaxies to pulsars, quasars, masers and the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – at radio frequencies. Using radio antennas, radio telescopes, and radio interferometers, this method allows for the study of objects that might otherwise be invisible or hidden in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.
One drawback of radio astronomy is the potential for interference. Since only certain wavelengths can pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, and local radio wave sources can throw off readings, radio antennas are usually located in remote areas of the world. A good example of this is the Very-Long Baseline Array (VLBA) located across the US, and the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) under construction in Australia and South Africa.
One other solution is to place radio antennas in space, where they will not be subject to interference or local radio sources. The antenna being produced by Radbound, ASTRON and ISIS is being delivered to the far side of the Moon for just this reason. As the latest space-based radio antenna to be deployed, it will be able to search the cosmos in ways Earth-based arrays cannot, looking for vital clues to the origins of the universe.
As Heino Falke – a professor of Astroparticle Physics and Radio Astronomy at Radboud – explained in a University press release, the deployment of this radio antenna on the far side of the Moon will be an historic achievement:
“Radio astronomers study the universe using radio waves, light coming from stars and planets, for example, which is not visible with the naked eye. We can receive almost all celestial radio wave frequencies here on Earth. We cannot detect radio waves below 30 MHz, however, as these are blocked by our atmosphere. It is these frequencies in particular that contain information about the early universe, which is why we want to measure them.”
As it stands, very little is known about this part of the electromagnetic spectrum. As a result, the Dutch radio antenna could be the first to provide information on the development of the earliest structures in the Universe. It is also the first instrument to be sent into space as part of a Chinese space mission.
Alongside Heino Falcke, Marc Klein Wolt – the director of the Radboud Radio Lab – is one of the scientific advisors for the project. For years, he and Falcke have been working towards the deployment of this radio antenna, and have high hopes for the project. As Professor Wolt said about the scientific package he is helping to create:
“The instrument we are developing will be a precursor to a future radio telescope in space. We will ultimately need such a facility to map the early universe and to provide information on the development of the earliest structures in it, like stars and galaxies.”
Together with engineers from ASTRON and ISIS, the Dutch team has accumulated a great deal of expertise from their years working on other radio astronomy projects, which includes experience working on the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) and the development of the Square Kilometre Array, all of which is being put to work on this new project.
Other tasks that this antenna will perform include monitoring space for solar storms, which are known to have a significant impact on telecommunications here on Earth. With a radio antenna on the far side of the Moon, astronomers will be able to better predict such events and prepare for them in advance.
Another benefit will be the ability to measure strong radio pulses from gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, which will help us to learn more about their rotational speed. Combined with the recent ESO efforts to map Jupiter at IR frequencies, and the data that is already arriving from the Juno mission, this data is likely to lead to some major breakthroughs in our understanding of this mysterious planet.
Last, but certainly not least, the Dutch team wants to create the first map of the early Universe using low-frequency radio data. This map is expected to take shape after two years, once the Moon has completed a few full rotations around the Earth and computer analysis can be completed.
It is also expected that such a map will provide scientists with additional evidence that confirms the Standard Model of Big Bang cosmology (aka. the Lambda CDM model). As with other projects currently in the works, the results are likely to be exciting and groundbreaking!