A Magnetar Just Woke Up After Three Years of Silence

When stars reach the end of their main sequence, they undergo a gravitational collapse, ejecting their outermost layers in a supernova explosion. What remains afterward is a dense, spinning core primarily made up of neutrons (aka. a neutron star), of which only 3000 are known to exist in the Milky Way Galaxy. An even rarer subset of neutron stars are magnetars, only two dozen of which are known in our galaxy.

These stars are especially mysterious, having extremely powerful magnetic fields that are almost powerful enough to rip them apart. And thanks to a new study by a team of international astronomers, it seems the mystery of these stars has only deepened further. Using data from a series of radio and x-ray observatories, the team observed a magnetar last year that had been dormant for about three years, and is now behaving somewhat differently.

The study, titled “Revival of the Magnetar PSR J1622–4950: Observations with MeerKAT, Parkes, XMM-Newton, Swift, Chandra, and NuSTAR“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. The team was led by Dr Fernando Camilo – the Chief Scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) – and included over 200 members from multiple universities and research institutions from around the world.

Magnetars are so-named because their magnetic fields are up to 1000 times stronger than those of ordinary pulsating neutron stars (aka. pulsars). The energy associated with these these fields is so powerful that it almost breaks the star apart, causing them to be unstable and display great variability in terms of their physical properties and electromagnetic emissions.

Whereas all magnetars are known to emit X-rays, only four have been known to emit radio waves. One of these is PSR J1622-4950 – a magnetar located about 30,000 light years from Earth. As of early 2015, this magnetar had been in a dormant state. But as the team indicated in their study, astronomers using the CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia noted that it was becoming active again on April 26th, 2017.

At the time, the magnetar was emitting bright radio pulses every four seconds. A few days later, Parkes was shut down as part of a month-long planned maintenance routine. At about the same time, South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope began monitoring the star, despite the fact that it was still under construction and only 16 of its 64 radio dishes were available. Dr Fernando Camilo describes the discovery in a recent SKA South Africa press release:

“[T]he MeerKAT observations proved critical to make sense of the few X-ray photons we captured with NASA’s orbiting telescopes – for the first time X-ray pulses have been detected from this star, every 4 seconds. Put together, the observations reported today help us to develop a better picture of the behaviour of matter in unbelievably extreme physical conditions, completely unlike any that can be experienced on Earth”.

Artist’s rendering of an outburst on an ultra-magnetic neutron star, also called a magnetar. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

After the initial observations were made by the Parkes and MeerKAT observatories, follow-up observations were conducted using the XMM-Newton x-ray space observatory, Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). With these combined observations, the team noted some very interesting things about this magnetar.

For one, they determined that PSR J1622-4950’s radio flux density, while variable, was approximately 100 times greater than it was during its dormant state. In addition, the x-ray flux was at least 800 times larger one month after reactivation, but began decaying exponentially over the course of a 92 to 130 day period. However, the radio observations noted something in the magnetar’s behavior that was quite unexpected.

While the overall geometry that was inferred from PSR J1622-4950’s radio emissions was consistent with what had been determined several years prior, their observations indicated that the radio emissions were now coming from a different location in the magnetosphere. This above all indicates how radio emissions from magnetars could differ from ordinary pulsars.

This discovery has also validated the MeerKAT Observatory as a world-class research instrument. This observatory is part of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the multi-radio telescope project that is building the world’s largest radio telescope in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. For its part, MeerKAT uses 64 radio antennas to gather radio images of the Universe to help astronomers understand how galaxies have evolved over time.

Aerial image of the South African MeerKAT radio telescope in the Karoo, South Africa. Credit: SKA

Given the sheer volume of data collected by these telescopes, MeerKAT relies on both cutting edge-technology and a highly-qualified team of operators. As Abbott indicated, “we have a team of the brightest engineers and scientists in South Africa and the world working on the project, because the problems that we need to solve are extremely challenging, and attract the best”.

Prof Phil Diamond, the Director-General of the SKA Organization leading the development of the Square Kilometer Array, was also impressed by the contribution of the MeerKAT team. As he stated in an SKA press release:

“Well done to my colleagues in South Africa for this outstanding achievement. Building such telescopes is extremely difficult, and this publication shows that MeerKAT is becoming ready for business. As one of the SKA precursor telescopes, this bodes well for the SKA. MeerKAT will eventually be integrated into Phase 1 of SKA-mid telescope bringing the total dishes at our disposal to 197, creating the most powerful radio telescope on the planet”.

When the SKA goes online, it will be one of the most powerful ground-based telescopes in the world and roughly 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument. Along with other next-generation ground-based and space-telescopes, the things it will reveal about our Universe and how it evolved over time are expected to be truly groundbreaking.

Further Reading: SKA Africa, SKA, The Astrophysical Journal

What Are Fast Radio Bursts?

298 What Are Fast Radio Bursts?


You might think you’re reading an educational website, where I explain fascinating concepts in space and astronomy, but that’s not really what’s going on here.

What’s actually happening is that you’re tagging along as I learn more and more about new and cool things happening in the Universe. I dig into them like a badger hiding a cow carcass, and we all get to enjoy the cache of knowledge I uncover.

Okay, that analogy got a little weird. Anyway, my point is. Squirrel!

Fast radio bursts are the new cosmic whatzits confusing and baffling astronomers, and now we get to take a front seat and watch them move through all stages of process of discovery.

Stage 1: A strange new anomaly is discovered that doesn’t fit any current model of the cosmos. For example, strange Boyajian’s Star. You know, that star that probably doesn’t have an alien megastructure orbiting around it, but astronomers can’t rule that out just yet?

Stage 2: Astronomers struggle to find other examples of this thing. They pitch ideas for new missions and scientific instruments. No idea is too crazy, until it’s proven to be too crazy. Examples include dark matter, dark energy, and that idea that we’re living in a

Stage 3: Astronomers develop a model for the thing, find evidence that matches their predictions, and vast majority of the astronomical community comes to a consensus on what this thing is. Like quasars and gamma ray bursts. YouTuber’s make their videos. Textbooks are updated. Balance is restored.

Today we’re going to talk about Fast Radio Bursts. They just moved from Stage 1 to Stage 2. Let’s dig in.

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, or “Furbys” were first detected in 2007 by the astronomer Duncan Lorimer from West Virginia University.

He was looking through an archive of pulsar observations. Pulsars, of course, are newly formed neutron stars, the remnants left over from supernova explosions. They spin rapidly, blasting out twin beams of radiation. Some can spin hundreds of times a second, so precisely you could set your watch to them.

Parkes radio dish
Lorimer’s archive of pulsar observations was captured at the Parkes radio dish in Australia. Credit: CSIRO (CC BY 3.0)

In this data, Lorimer made a “that’s funny” observation, when he noticed one blast of radio waves that squealed for 5 milliseconds and then it was gone. It didn’t match any other observation or prediction of what should be out there, so astronomers set out to find more of them.

Over the last 10 years, astronomers have found about 25 more examples of Fast Radio Bursts. Each one only lasts a few milliseconds, and then fades away forever. A one time event that can appear anywhere in the sky and only last for a couple milliseconds and never repeats is not an astronomer’s favorite target of study.

Actually, one FRB has been found to repeat, maybe.

The question, of course, is “what are they?”. And the answer, right now is, “astronomers have no idea.”

In fact, until very recently, astronomers weren’t ever certain they were coming from space at all. We’re surrounded by radio signals all the time, so a terrestrial source of fast radio bursts seems totally logical.

About a week ago, astronomers from Australia announced that FRBs are definitely coming from outside the Earth. They used the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (or MOST) in Canberra to gather data on a large patch of sky.

Then they sifted through 1,000 terabytes of data and found just 3 fast radio bursts. Three.

Since MOST is farsighted and can’t perceive any radio signals closer than 10,000 km away, the signals had to be coming outside planet Earth. They were “extraterrestrial” in origin.

Right now, fast radio bursts are infuriating to astronomers. They don’t seem to match up with any other events we can see. They’re not the afterglow of a supernova, or tied in some way to gamma ray bursts.

In order to really figure out what’s going on, astronomers need new tools, and there’s a perfect instrument coming. Astronomers are building a new telescope called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (or CHIME), which is under construction near the town of Penticton in my own British Columbia.

CHIME under construction in Penticton, British Columbia. Credit: Mateus A. Fandiño (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It looks like a bunch of snowboard halfpipes, and its job will be to search for hydrogen emission from distant galaxies. It’ll help us understand how the Universe was expanding between 7 and 11 billion years ago, and create a 3-dimensional map of the early cosmos.

In addition to this, it’s going to be able to detect hundreds of fast radio bursts, maybe even a dozen a day, finally giving astronomers vast pools of signals to study.

What are they? Astronomers have no idea. Seriously, if you’ve got a good suggestion, they’d be glad to hear it.

In these kinds of situations, astronomers generally assume they’re caused by exploding stars in some way. Young stars or old stars, or maybe stars colliding. But so far, none of the theoretical models match the observations.

This artist’s conception illustrates one of the most primitive supermassive black holes known (central black dot) at the core of a young, star-rich galaxy. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Another idea is black holes, of course. Specifically, supermassive black holes at the hearts of distant galaxies. From time to time, a random star, planet, or blob of gas falls into the black hole. This matter piles upon the black hole’s event horizon, heats up, screams for a moment, and disappears without a trace. Not a full on quasar that shines for thousands of years, but a quick snack.

The next idea comes with the only repeating fast radio burst that’s ever been found. Astronomers looked through the data archive of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and found a signal that had repeated at least 10 times in a year, sometimes less than a minute apart.

Since the quick blast of radiation is repeating, this rules out a one-time collision between exotic objects like neutron stars. Instead, there could be a new class of magnetars (which are already a new class of neutron stars), that can release these occasional shrieks of radio.

An artist’s impression of a magnetar. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Or maybe this repeating object is totally different from the single events that have been discovered so far.

Here’s my favorite idea. And honestly, the one that’s the least realistic. What I’m about to say is almost certainly not what’s going on. And yet, it can’t be ruled out, and that’s good enough for my fertile imagination.

Avi Loeb and Manasvi Lingam at Harvard University said the following about FRBs:

“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.”

Artificial origin. So. Aliens. Nice.

Loeb and Lingam calculated how difficult it would be to send a signal that strong, that far across the Universe. They found that you’d need to build a solar array with twice the surface area of Earth to power the radio wave transmitter.

And what would you do with a transmission of radio or microwaves that strong? You’d use it to power a spacecraft, of course. What we’re seeing here on Earth is just the momentary flash as a propulsion beam sweeps past the Solar System like a lighthouse.

But in reality, this huge solar array would be firing out a constant beam of radiation that would propel a massive starship to tremendous speeds. Like the Breakthrough Starshot spacecraft, but for million tonne spaceships.

Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings (SAIC)

In other words, we could be witnessing alien transportation systems, pushing spacecraft with beams of energy to other worlds.

And I know that’s probably not what’s happening. It’s not aliens. It’s never aliens. But in my mind, that’s what I’m imagining.

So, kick back and enjoy the ride. Join us as we watch astronomers struggle to understand what fast radio bursts are. As they invalidate theories, and slowly unlock one of the most thrilling mysteries in modern astronomy. And as soon as they figure it out, I’ll let you know all about it.

What do you think? Which explanation for fast radio bursts seems the most logical to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and wild speculation in the comments.

What Are Magnetars?

In a previous article, we crushed that idea that the Universe is perfect for life. It’s not. Almost the entire Universe is a horrible and hostile place, apart from a fraction of a mostly harmless planet in a backwater corner of the Milky Way.

While living here on Earth takes about 80 years to kill you, there are other places in the Universe at the very other end of the spectrum. Places that would kill you in a fraction of a fraction of a second. And nothing is more lethal than supernovae and remnants they leave behind: neutron stars.

We’ve done a few articles about neutron stars and their different flavours, so there should be some familiar terrain here.

Artist concept of a neutron star.  Credit: NASA
Artist concept of a neutron star. Credit: NASA

As you know, neutron stars are formed when stars more massive than our Sun explode as supernovae. When these stars die, they no longer have the light pressure pushing outward to counteract the massive gravity pulling inward.

This enormous inward force is so strong that it overcomes the repulsive force that keeps atoms from collapsing. Protons and electrons are forced into the same space, becoming neutrons. The whole thing is just made of neutrons. Did the star have hydrogen, helium, carbon and iron before? That’s too bad, because now it’s all neutrons.

You get pulsars when neutron stars first form. When all that former star is compressed into a teeny tiny package. The conservation of angular motion spins the star up to tremendous velocities, sometimes hundreds of times a second.

But when neutron stars form, about one in ten does something really really strange, becoming one of the most mysterious and terrifying objects in the Universe. They become magnetars. You’ve probably heard the name, but what are they?

As I said, magnetars are neutron stars, formed from supernovae. But something unusual happens as they form, spinning up their magnetic field to an intense level. In fact, astronomers aren’t exactly sure what happens to make them so strong.

This artist’s impression shows the magnetar in the very rich and young star cluster Westerlund 1. This remarkable cluster contains hundreds of very massive stars, some shining with a brilliance of almost one million suns. European astronomers have for the first time demonstrated that this magnetar — an unusual type of neutron star with an extremely strong magnetic field — probably was formed as part of a binary star system. The discovery of the magnetar’s former companion elsewhere in the cluster helps solve the mystery of how a star that started off so massive could become a magnetar, rather than collapse into a black hole. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
This artist’s impression shows the magnetar in the very rich and young star cluster Westerlund 1. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

One idea is that if you get the spin, temperature and magnetic field of a neutron star into a perfect sweet spot, it sets off a dynamo mechanism that amplifies the magnetic field by a factor of a thousand.

But a more recent discovery gives a tantalizing clue for how they form. Astronomers discovered a rogue magnetar on an escape trajectory out of the Milky Way. We’ve seen stars like this, and they’re ejected when one star in a binary system detonates as a supernova. In other words, this magnetar used to be part of a binary pair.

And while they were partners, the two stars orbited one another closer than the Earth orbits the Sun. This close, they could transfer material back and forth. The larger star began to die first, puffing out and transferring material to the smaller star. This increased mass spun the smaller star up to the point that it grew larger and spewed material back at the first star.

The initially smaller star detonated as a supernova first, ejecting the other star into this escape trajectory, and then the second went off, but instead of forming a regular neutron star, all these binary interactions turned it into a magnetar.  There you go, mystery maybe solved?

The strength of the magnetic field around a magnetar completely boggles the imagination. The magnetic field of the Earth’s core is about 25 gauss, and here on the surface, we experience less than half a gauss. A regular bar magnet is about 100 gauss. Just a regular neutron star has a magnetic field of a trillion gauss.  Magnetars are 1,000 times more powerful than that, with a magnetic field of a quadrillion gauss.

What if you could get close to a magnetar? Well, within about 1,000 kilometers of a magnetar, the magnetic field is so strong it messes with the electrons in your atoms. You would literally be torn apart at an atomic level. Even the atoms themselves are deformed into rod-like shapes, no longer usable by your precious life’s chemistry.

But you wouldn’t notice because you’d already be dead from the intense radiation streaming from the magnetar, and all the lethal particles orbiting the star and trapped in its magnetic field.

Artist's conception of a starquake cracking the surface of a neutron star. Credit: Darlene McElroy of LANL
Artist’s conception of a starquake cracking the surface of a neutron star. Credit: Darlene McElroy of LANL

One of the most fascinating aspects of magnetars is how they can have starquakes. You know, earthquakes, but on stars… starquakes. When neutron stars form, they can have a delicious murder crust on the outside, surrounding the degenerate death matter inside. This crust of neutrons can crack, like the tectonic plates on Earth. As this happens, the magnetar releases a blast of radiation that we can see clear across the Milky Way.

In fact, the most powerful starquake ever recorded came from a magnetar called SGR 1806-20, located about 50,000 light years away. In a tenth of a second, one of these starquakes released more energy than the Sun gives off in 100,000 years. And this wasn’t even a supernova, it was merely a crack on the magnetar’s surface.

Magnetars are awesome, and provide the absolute opposite end of the spectrum for a safe and habitable Universe. Fortunately, they’re really far away and you won’t have to worry about them ever getting close.

Suddenly Slowing Star Could Give Hints Of Its Interior

Why would a spinning star suddenly slow down? Even after writing a scientific paper about the phenomenon, astronomers still appear to be in shock-and-awe mode about what they saw.

“I looked at the data and was shocked — the … star had suddenly slowed down,” stated Rob Archibald, a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal. “These stars are not supposed to behave this way.”

Archibald led a group that was observing a neutron star, a type of really, really dense object created after huge stars run out of gas and collapse. The studied star (called 1E 2259+586, if you’re curious) has a massive magnetic field that places it in a subcategory of neutron stars called magnetars.

Anyway, the astronomers were watching over the magnetar with the NASA Swift X-ray telescope, just to get a sense of the star’s rotation and also to keep an eye out for the odd X-ray explosion commonly seen in stars of this type. But to see its spin rate reduce — that was definitely something unexpected.

An artistic impression of a magnetar with a very complicated magnetic field at its interior and a simple small dipolar field outside. Credits: ESA - Author: Christophe Carreau
An artistic impression of a magnetar with a very complicated magnetic field at its interior and a simple small dipolar field outside. Credits: ESA – Author: Christophe Carreau

Previous neutron star observations have showed them suddenly rotating faster (as if spinning up to several hundred times a second wasn’t enough.) This maneuver is called a glitch, and is thought to happen because the neutron has some sort of fluid (sometimes called a “superfluid”) inside that drives the rotation.

So now, the astronomers had evidence of an “anti-glitch”, a star slowing down instead of speeding up. It wasn’t by much (just a third of a part per million in the seven-second rotation rate), but while it happened they also saw X-rays substantially increase from the magnetar. Astronomers believe that something major happened either inside, or near the surface of the star.

The magnetic field surrounding the mysterious magnetar (NASA)
The magnetic field surrounding a magnetar (NASA)

And, astronomers added, if they can figure out what is happening, it could shed some light on what exactly is going on in that dense interior. Maybe the fluid is rotating at different rates, or something else is going on.

“Such behaviour is not predicted by models of neutron star spin-down and, if of internal origin, is suggestive of differential rotation in the magnetar, supporting the need for a rethinking of glitch theory for all neutron stars,” read a paper on the results.

The work was released today (May 29) at the Canadian Astronomical Society (CASCA)’s annual meeting, held this year in Vancouver.

You can read the entire paper in Nature.

Credit: CASCA/McGill University

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: April 30-May 6, 2012

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Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! Are you ready for another week filled with bright planets, a meteor shower, challenging lunar features, interesting stars and astronomy history? Then you have come to the right place! Bring along your telescopes and binoculars and meet me in the backyard…

Monday, April 30 – Karl Frederich Gauss was born on this day in 1777. Known as the “Prince of Mathematics,” Gauss contributed to the field of astronomy in many ways – from computing asteroid orbits to inventing the heliotrope. Out of Gauss’ many endeavors, he is most recognized for his work in magnetism. We understand the term “gauss” as a magnetic unit – a refrigerator magnet carries about 100 gauss while an average sunspot might go up to 4000. On the most extreme ends of the magnetic scale, the Earth produces about 0.5 gauss at its poles, while a magnetar can produce as much as 10 to the 15th power in gauss units!

While we cannot directly observe a magnetar, those living in the Southern Hemisphere can view a region of the sky where magnetars are known to exist – the Large Magellanic Cloud – or you can use the projection method to view a sunspot! If you have a proper solar filter, magnetism distorts sunspots as they near the limb – called the “Wilson Effect”

Tuesday, May 1 – On this day in 1949 Gerard Kuiper discovered Nereid, a satellite of Neptune. If you’re game, you can find Neptune – usually hanging around in Capricornus – about an hour before dawn. While it can be seen in binoculars as a bluish “star,” it takes around a 6″ telescope and some magnification to resolve its disc. Today’s imaging technology can even reveal its moons!

While you’re out this morning, keep an eye on the sky for the peak of the Phi Bootid meteor shower, whose radiant is near the constellation of Hercules. While the best time to view a meteor shower is around 2:00 a.m. local time, you will have best success watching for these meteors when the Moon is as far west as possible. The average fall rate is about 6 per hour.

Our lunar mission for tonight is to move south, past the crater rings of Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, Arzachel, and Purbach, until we end up at the spectacular crater Walter.

Named for Dutch astronomer Bernhard Walter, this 132- by 140-kilometer-wide lunar feature offers up amazing details at high power. It is worthwhile to take the time to study the differing levels, which drop to a maximum of 4,130 meters below the surface. Multiple interior strikes abound, but the most fascinating of all is the wall crater Nonius. Spanning 70 kilometers, Nonius would also appear to have a double strike of its own—one that’s 2,990 meters deep!

Wednesday, May 2 – On the lunar surface, we can enjoy a strange, thin feature. If you used last night’s map, you’re well acquainted with this area! Look toward the lunar south where you will note the prominent rings of craters Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, Arzachel, Purbach, and Walter descending from north to south. Just west of them, you’ll see the emerging Mare Nubium. Between Purbach and Walter you will see the small, bright ring of Thebit with a crater caught on its edge. Look further west and you will see a long, thin, dark feature cutting across the mare. Its name? Rupes Recta – better known as The Straight Wall, or sometimes Rima Birt. It is one of the steepest known lunar slopes rising around 366 meters from the surface at a 41 degree angle.

Be sure to mark your lunar challenge notes and we’ll visit this feature again!

Another great target for a bright night is Delta Corvi. 125 light-years away, it displays a yellowish color primary and slightly blue secondary that’s an easily split star in any telescope, and a nice visual double with Eta in binoculars. Use low power and see if you can frame this bright grouping of stars in the same eyepiece field.

Before you put the telescope away for the evening, be sure to visit with Mars. If you’ve been keeping track, the red planet is slowly moving away from us and dimming even more. Tonight it should have reached an apparent -0.0 magnitude. Compare it to other nearby stars and gauge its brightness for yourself. How has its apparent position against the background stars changed over the weeks? Have you noted features like Syrtis Major or Amazonis Planitia? How have the polar caps changed?

Thursday, May 3 – Tonight we’ll use what we learned previously to locate another unusual feature – Montes Recti or the “Straight Range.” You’ll find this curiosity tucked between Plato and Sinus Iridum on the north shore of Mare Imbrium.

To binoculars or small scopes at low power, this isolated strip of mountains will appear as a white line drawn across the grey mare. It is believed this feature may be all that is left of a crater wall from the Imbrium impact. It runs for a distance of around 90 kilometers, and is approximately 15 kilometers wide. The Straight Range and some of its peaks reach up to 2072 meters! Although this doesn’t sound particularly impressive, that’s over twice as tall as the Vosges Mountains in central western Europe, and on the average very comparable to the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States.

Friday, May 4 – Tonight you are on your own without a map. Lunar features are easy when you become acquainted with them! Return to the Moon and explore with binoculars or telescopes the area to the south around another easy and delightful lunar feature you should recognize, the crater Gassendi. At around 110 kilometers in diameter and 2010 meters deep, this ancient crater contains a triple mountain peak in its center. As one of the most “perfect circles” on the Moon, the south wall of Gassendi has been eroded by lava flows over a 48 kilometer expanse and offers a great amount of detail to telescopic observers on its ridge- and rille-covered floor. For those observing with binoculars? Gassendi’s bright ring stands on the north shore of Mare Humorum…an area about the size of the state of Arkansas!

Northeast of Regulus by about a fistwidth is 2.61 magnitude Gamma Leonis – also known as Algieba. This is one of the finest double stars in the sky, but a little difficult at low power since the pair is both bright and close. Separated by about twice the diameter of our own solar system, this 90 light-year distant pair is slowly widening.

Another two fingerwidths north is 3.44 magnitude Zeta Leonis – also named Aldhafera. Located about 130 light-years away, this excellent star has an optical companion which is viewable in binoculars – 35 Leonis. Remember this pair, because it will lead you to galaxies later!

Saturday, May 5 – In 1961 Alan Shepard became the first American in “space” (as we now refer to that region above the sky), taking a 15 minute suborbital ride aboard the Mercury craft Freedom 7.

Return to the Moon tonight to have a look on the terminator near the southern cusp for two outstanding features. The easiest is crater Schickard – a class V mountain-walled plain that spans 227 kilometers. Named for German astronomer Wilhelm Schickard, this beautiful old crater with the subtle interior details has another crater caught on its northern wall named Lehmann.

Look further south for one of the Moon’s most incredible features – Wargentin. Among the many strange things on the lunar surface, Wargentin is unique. Once upon a time, it was a very normal crater and had been that way for hundreds of millions of years – then it happened. Either a fissure opened in its interior, or the meteoric impact that formed it caused molten lava to begin to rise. Oddly enough, Wargentin’s walls were without large enough breaks to allow the lava to escape and it continued to fill the crater to the rim. Often referred to as “the Cheese,” enjoy Wargentin tonight for its unusual appearance and be sure to note Nasmyth and Phocylides as well!

Before we leave, let’s have a look east at 3.34 magnitude Theta Leonis. Also known as Chort, mark this one in your memory, as well as 3.94 magnitude Iota to the south as markers for a galaxy hop. Last is easternmost 2.14 magnitude Beta. Denebola is the “Lion’s Tail” and has several faint optical companions.

Sunday, May 6 – Earlier we learned about awesome magnetic energy, but what happens when you find magnetism in a very unlikely place? Tonight might be Full Moon, but we can still have a look at the lunar surface just a little southeast of the grey oval of Grimaldi. The area we are looking for is called the Sirsalis Rille and on an orb devoid of magnetic fields – it’s magnetic! Like a dry river bed, this ancient “crack” on the surface runs 480 kilometers along the surface and branches in many areas.

For those who like curiosities, our target for tonight will be 1.4 degrees northwest of 59 Leonis, which is itself about a degree southwest of Xi. While this type of observation may not be for everyone, what we are looking for is a very special star – a red dwarf named Wolf 359 (RA 10 56 28.99 Dec +07 00 52.0).

Discovered photographically by Max Wolf in 1959, charts from that time period will no longer be accurate because of the star’s large proper motion. It is one of the least luminous stars known, and we probably wouldn’t even know it was there except for the fact that it is the third closest star to our solar system. Located only 7.5 light-years away, this miniature star is about 8% the size of our Sun – making it roughly the size of Jupiter. Oddly enough, it is also a “flare star” – capable of jumping another magnitude brighter at random intervals. It might be faint and difficult to spot in mid-sized scopes, but Wolf 359 is definitely one of the most unusual things you will ever observe!

Until next week? Ask for the Moon, but keep on reaching for the stars!

An Exotic Source for Cosmic Rays: ‘Baby’ Black Holes

Cosmic rays – particles that have been accelerated to near the speed of light – stream out from our Sun all of the time, though they are positively sluggish compared to what are called Ultra-High-Energy Cosmic Rays (UHECRs). These types of cosmic rays originate from sources outside of the Solar System, and are much more energetic than those from our Sun, though also much rarer. The merger between a white dwarf and neutron star or black hole may be one source of these rays, and such mergers may occur often enough to be the most significant source of these energetic particles.

The Sloan White dwArf Radial velocity data Mining Survey (SWARMS) – which is part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey – recently uncovered a binary system of exotic objects only 50 parsecs away from the Solar System. This system, named SDSS 1257+5428, appears to be a white dwarf star that is orbiting a neutron star or low-mass black hole. Details about the system and its initial discovery can be found in a paper by Carles Badenes, et al. here.

Co-author Todd Thompson, assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy at Ohio State University, argues in a recent letter to The Astrophysical Journal Letters that this type of system, and subsequent merger of these exotic remnants of stars, may be commonplace, and could account for the amount of UHECRs that are currently observed. The merger between the white dwarf and neutron star or black hole may also create a black hole of low mass, a so-called “baby” black hole.

Thompson wrote in an email interview:

“White dwarf/neutron star or black hole binaries are thought to be quite rare, although there is a huge range in the number per Milky Way-like galaxy in the literature.  SWARMS was the first to detect such a system using the “radial velocity” technique, and the first to find such an object so nearby, only 50 parsecs away (about 170 light years). For this reason, it was very surprising, and its relative proximity is what allowed us to make the argument that these systems must be quite common compared to most previous expectations.  SWARMS would have had to be very lucky to see something so rare so near by.”

Thompson, et al. argue that this type of merger may be the most significant source of UHECRs in the Milky Way galaxy, and that one should merge in the galaxy about every 2,000 years. These types of mergers may be slightly less common than Type Ia supernovae, which originate in binary systems of white dwarfs.

A white dwarf merging with a neutron star would also create a low-mass black hole of about 3 times the mass of the Sun. Thompson said, “In fact, this scenario is likely since we think that neutron stars cannot exist above 2-3 times the mass of the Sun. The idea is that the WD would be disrupted and accrete onto the neutron star and then the neutron star would collapse to a black hole.  In this case, we might see the signal of BH formation in gravity waves.”

The gravity waves produced in such a merger would be above the detectable range by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), an instrument that uses lasers to detect gravity waves (of which none have been detected…yet), and even possibly a spaced base gravitational wave observatory, NASA’s Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, LISA.

Common cosmic rays that come from our Sun have an energy on the scale of 10^7 to 10^10 electron-volts. Ultra-high-energy cosmic rays are a rare phenomenon, but they exceed 10^20 electron-volts. How do systems like SDSS 1257+5428 produce cosmic rays of such high energy? Thompson explained that there are two equally fascinating possibilities.

In the first, the formation of a black hole and subsequent accretion disk from the merger would generate a jet somewhat like those seen at the center of galaxies, the telltale sign of a quasar. Though these jets would be much, much smaller, the shockwaves at the front of the jet would accelerate particles to the necessary energies to create UHECRs, Thompson said.

In the second scenario, the neutron star steals matter off of the white dwarf companion, and this accretion starts it rotating rapidly. The magnetic stresses that build at the surface of the neutron star, or “magnetar”, would be able to accelerate any particles that interact with the intense magnetic field to ultra-high energies.

The creation of these ultra-high-energy cosmic rays by such systems is highly theoretical, and just how common they may be in our galaxy is only an estimate. It remains unclear so soon after the discovery of SDSS 1257+5428 whether the companion object of the white dwarf is a black hole or neutron star. But the fact that SWARMS made such a discovery so early in the survey is encouraging for the discovery of further exotic binary systems.

“It is not likely that SWARMS will see 10 or 100 more such systems. If it did, the rate of such mergers would be very (implausibly) high.  That said, we’ve been surprised many times before. However, given the total area of the sky surveyed, if our estimate of the rate of such mergers is correct, SWARMS should see only about 1 more such system, and they may see none. A similar survey in the southern sky (there is nothing at present comparable to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, on which SWARMS is based) should turn up approximately 1 such system,” Thompson said.

Observations of SDSS 1257+5428 have already been made using the Swift X-ray observatory, and some measurements have been taken in the radio spectrum. No source of gamma-rays was to be found in the location of the system using the Fermi telescope.

Thompson said, “Probably the most important forthcoming observation of the system is to get a true distance via parallax. Right now, the distance is based on the properties of the observed white dwarf.  In principle,
it should be relatively easy to watch the system over the next year and get a parallax distance, which will alleviate many of the uncertainties surrounding the physical properties of the white dwarf.”

Source: Arxiv, email interview with Todd Thompson