Astronomers Observe a Pulsar 6500 Light-Years From Earth and See Two Separate Flares Coming off its Surface

Astronomy can be a tricky business, owing to the sheer distances involved. Luckily, astronomers have developed a number of tools and strategies over the years that help them to study distant objects in greater detail. In addition to ground-based and space-based telescopes, there’s also the technique known as gravitational lensing, where the gravity of an intervening object is used to magnify light coming from a more distant object.

Recently, a team of Canadian astronomers used this technique to observe an eclipsing binary millisecond pulsar located about 6500 light years away. According to a study produced by the team, they observed two intense regions of radiation around one star (a brown dwarf) to conduct observations of the other star (a pulsar) – which happened to be the highest resolution observations in astronomical history.

The study, titled “Pulsar emission amplified and resolved by plasma lensing in an eclipsing binary“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. The study was led by Robert Main, a PhD astronomy student at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, and included members from the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

The system they observed is known as the “Black Widow Pulsar”, a binary system that consists of a brown dwarf and a millisecond pulsar orbiting closely to each other. Because of their close proximity to one another, scientists have determined that the pulsar is actively siphoning material from its brown dwarf companion and will eventually consume it. Discovered in 1988, the name “Black Widow” has since come to be applied to other similar binaries.

The observations made by the Canadian team were made possible thanks to the rare geometry and characteristics of the binary – specifically, the “wake” or comet-like tail of gas that extends from the brown dwarf to the pulsar. As Robert Main, the lead author of the paper, explained in a Dunlap Institute press release:

“The gas is acting like a magnifying glass right in front of the pulsar. We are essentially looking at the pulsar through a naturally occurring magnifier which periodically allows us to see the two regions separately.”

Like all pulsars, the “Black Widow” is a rapidly rotating neutron star that spins at a rate of over 600 times a second. As it spins, it emits beams of radiation from its two polar hotspots, which have a strobing effect when observed from a distance. The brown dwarf, meanwhile, is about one third the diameter of the Sun, is located roughly two million km from the pulsar and orbits it once every 9 hours.

Image of the pulsar surrounded by its bow shock. White rays indicate particles of matter and antimatter being spewed from the star. Its companion star is too close to the pulsar to be visible at this scale. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Because they are so close together, the brown dwarf is tidally-locked to the pulsar and is blasted by strong radiation. This intense radiation heats one side of the relatively cool brown dwarf to temperatures of about 6000 °C (10,832 °F), the same temperature as our Sun. Because of the radiation and gases passing between them, the emissions coming from the pulsar interfere with each other, which makes them difficult to study.

However, astronomers have long understood that these same regions could be used as “interstellar lenses” that could localize pulsar emission regions, thus allowing for their study. In the past, astronomers have only been able to resolve emission components marginally. But thanks to the efforts of Main and his colleagues, they were able observing two intense radiation flares located 20 kilometers apart.

In addition to being an unprecedentedly high-resolution observation, the results of this study could provide insight into the nature of the mysterious phenomena known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). As Main explained:

“Many observed properties of FRBs could be explained if they are being amplified by plasma lenses. The properties of the amplified pulses we detected in our study show a remarkable similarity to the bursts from the repeating FRB, suggesting that the repeating FRB may be lensed by plasma in its host galaxy.”

It is an exciting time for astronomers, where improved instruments and methods are not only allowing for more accurate observations, but also providing data that could resolve long-standing mysteries. It seems that every few days, fascinating new discoveries are being made!

Further Reading: University of Toronto, Nature

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

Messier 28 – The NGC 6626 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Globular Cluster known as Messier 28. Enjoy!

Back in the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noted the presence of several “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Having originally mistaken them for comets, he began compiling a list of them so that others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these objects was the globular cluster now known as Messier 28. Located in the direction of the Sagittarius constellation, some 17,900 light-years from Earth, this “nebulous” cluster is easily detectable in the night sky. It is also the third largest known clustering of millisecond pulsars in the known Universe.


Compressed into a sphere measuring about 60 light years in diameter, globular star cluster Messier 28 happily orbits our galactic center about 19,000 light years away from Earth. In all of its thousands upon thousands of stars, M28 contains 18 known RR Lyrae variables and a W Virginis variable star. This very different variable is a Type II, or population II Cepheid that has a precise change rate which occurs every 17 days.

 Image based on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and obtained from the Hubble Legacy Archive, which is a collaboration between the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI/NASA), the Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility (ST-ECF/ESA) and the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre (CADC/NRC/CSA).
Image of Messier 28, based on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and obtained from the Hubble Legacy Archive. Credit: STScI/NASA/ST-EFC/ESA/CADC/NRC/CSA

There has also been a second long period variable discovered, which could very well be an RV Tauri type, too. However, one of M28’s biggest claims to fame happened in 1986, when it became the first globular cluster known to contain a millisecond pulsar. This was discovered by the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory. The work on the pulsar was later picked up by Chandra researchers.

As Martin C. Weisskopf (et al) of the Space Sciences Department put it in a 2002 study of the object:

“We report here the results of the first Chandra X-Ray Observatory observations of the globular cluster M28 (NGC 6626). We detect 46 X-ray sources of which 12 lie within one core radius of the center. We measure the radial distribution of the X-ray sources and fit it to a King profile finding a core radius. We measure for the first time the unconfused phase-averaged X-ray spectrum of the 3.05-ms pulsar B1821–24 and find it is best described by a power law with photon index. We find marginal evidence of an emission line centered at 3.3 keV in the pulsar spectrum, which could be interpreted as cyclotron emission from a corona above the pulsar’s polar cap if the magnetic field is strongly different from a centered dipole. We present a spectral analyses of the brightest unidentified source and suggest that it is a transiently accreting neutron star in a low-mass X-ray binary, in quiescence. In addition to the resolved sources, we detect fainter, unresolved X-ray emission from the central core.”

And the search has far from ended as even more X-ray counterparts have been discovered inside this seemingly quiet globular cluster! As W. Becker and C.Y. Hui of the Max Planck Institute wrote in their 2007 study:

“A recent radio survey of globular clusters has increased the number of millisecond pulsars drastically. M28 is now the globular cluster with the third largest population of known pulsars, after Terzan 5 and 47 Tuc. This prompted us to revisit the archival Chandra data on M28 to evaluate whether the newly discovered millisecond pulsars find a counterpart among the various X-ray sources detected in M28 previously. The radio position of PSR J1824-2452H is found to be in agreement with the position of CXC 182431-245217 while some faint unresolved X-ray emission near to the center of M28 is found to be coincident with the millisecond pulsars PSR J1824-2452G, J1824-2452J, J1824-2452I and J1824-2452E.”

Messier 28. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST
The globular cluster Messier 28, image by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST

So is it possible that these can be seen? According to the 2001 study – “A search for the optical counterpart to PSR B1821-24 in M 28” – by Hubble researcher A Golden (et al.):

“We have analyzed archival HST/WFPC2 images in both the F555W & F814W bands of the core field of the globular cluster M 28 in an attempt to identify the optical counterpart of the magnetospherically active millisecond pulsar PSR B1821-24. Examination of the radio derived error circle yielded several potential candidates, down to a magnitude of V $\sim$ 24.5 (V0 $\sim$ 23.0). Each were further investigated, both in the context of the CMD of M 28, and also with regard to phenomenological models of pulsar magnetospheric emission. The latter was based on both luminosity-spindown correlations and known spectral flux density behaviour in this regime from the small population of optical pulsars observed to date. None of the potential candidates exhibited emission expected from a magnetospherically active pulsar. The fact that the magnetic field & spin coupling for PSR B1821-24 is of a similar magnitude to that of the Crab pulsar in the vicinity of the light cylinder has suggested that the millisecond pulsar may well be an efficient nonthermal emitter. ASCA’s detection of a strong synchrotron-dominated X-ray pulse fraction encourages such a viewpoint. We argue that only future dedicated 2-d high speed photometry observations of the radio error-circle can finally resolve this matter.”

History of Observation:

This globular cluster was an original discovery in July 1764 of Charles Messier who wrote in his notes:

“In the night of the 26th to the 27th of the same month, I have discovered a nebula in the upper part of the bow of Sagittarius, at about 1 degree from the star Lambda of that constellation, and little distant from the beautiful nebula which is between the head and the bow: that new one may be the third of the older one, and doesn’t contain any star, as far as I have been able to judge when examining it with a good Gregorian telescope which magnifies 104 times: it is round, its diameter is about 2 minutes of arc; one sees it with difficulty with an ordinary refractor of 3 feet and a half of length. I have compared the middle with the star Lambda Sagittarii, and I have concluded its right ascension of 272d 29′ 30″, and its declination of 37d 11′ 57″ south.”

As always, Sir William Herschel would often revisit with Messier’s objects for his own private observations and in his notes he states:

“It may be called insulated though situated in a part of the heavens that is very rich in stars. It may have a nucleus, for it is much compressed towards the centre, and the situation is too low for seeing it well. The stars of the cluster are pretty numerous.” It would be his son, John Herschel who would give M28 its New General Catalog Number and describe it as “Not very bright; but very rich, excessively compressed globular cluster; stars of 14th to 15th magnitude; much brighter toward the middle; a fine object.”

The location of Messier 28, in the direction of the Sagittarius Constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
The location of Messier 28, in the direction of the Sagittarius Constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Regardless of whether or not you use binoculars or a telescope on M28, part of the joy of this object is understand how very rich the stellar field is in which it appears. As John Herschel once said of M28 in his many observations, “Occurs in the milky way, of which the stars here are barely visible and immensely numerous.”

Locating Messier 28:

Finding M28 is another easy object once you’ve familiarized yourself with the “teapot” asterism of the constellation of Sagittarius. In binoculars, simply center Lambda in the field of view and you will see Messier 28 as a small, faded grey circular area in the 1:00 position away from the marker star.

In the finderscope of telescope, you can start by centering on Lambda and go to the eyepiece and simply shift the telescope to the northwest slowly and Messier 28 will pop into view. While this globular cluster is easily bright enough to be seen in the smallest of optics, it will require at least a 4″ telescope before it begins any resolution of individual stars and telescopes in the 10″ and larger range will fully appreciate all it has to offer.

And here are the quick facts to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 28
Alternative Designations: M28, NGC 6626
Object Type: Class IV Globular Cluster
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 18 : 24.5 (h:m)
Declination: -24 : 52 (deg:m)
Distance: 18.3 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.8 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 11.2 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.


A Pulsar and White Dwarf Dance Together In A Surprising Orbit

Searching the Universe for strange new star systems can lead to some pretty interesting finds. And sometimes, it can turn up phenomena that contradict everything we think we know about the formation and evolution of stars. Such finds are not only fascinating and exciting, they allow us the chance to expand and refine our models of how the Universe came to be.

For instance, a recent study conducted by an international team of scientists has shown how the recent discovery of binary system – a millisecond pulsar and a low-mass white dwarf (LMWD) – has defied conventional ideas of stellar evolution. Whereas such systems were believed to have circular orbits in the past, the white dwarf in this particular binary orbits the pulsar with extreme eccentricity!

To break it down, conventional wisdom states that LMWDs are the product of binary evolution. The reason for this is because that under normal circumstances, such a star – with low mass but incredible density – would only form after it has exhausted all its nuclear fuel and lost its outer layers as a planetary nebula. Given the mass of this star, this would take about 100 billion years to happen on its own – i.e. longer than the age of the Universe.

An artist's impression of an accreting X-ray millisecond pulsar. The flowing material from the companion star forms a disk around the neutron star which is truncated at the edge of the pulsar magnetosphere. Credit: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center / Dana Berry
An artist’s impression of an accreting X-ray millisecond pulsar. The flowing material from the companion star forms a disk around the neutron star which is truncated at the edge of the pulsar magnetosphere. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Dana Berry

As such, they are generally believed to be the result of pairing with other stars – specifically, millisecond radio pulsars (MSPs). These are a distinct population of neutron stars that have fast spin periods and magnetic fields that are several orders of magnitude weaker than that of “normal” pulsars. These properties are thought to be the result of mass transfer with a companion star.

Basically, MSPs that are orbited by a star will slowly strip them of their mass, sucking off their outer layers and turning them into a white dwarf. The addition of this mass to the pulsar causes it to spin faster and buries its magnetic field, and also strips the companion star down to a white dwarf. In this scenario, the eccentricity of orbit of the LMWD around the pulsar is expected to be negligible.

However, when looking to the binary star system PSR J2234+0511, the international team noticed something entirely different. Here, they found a low-mass white dwarf paired with a millisecond pulsar which the white dwarf orbited with a period of 32 days and an extreme eccentricity (0.13).  Since this defies current models of white dwarf stars, the team began looking for explanations.

As Dr. John Antoniadis – a researcher from the Dunlap Institute at University of Toronto and the lead author of the study – told Universe Today via email:

“Millisecond pulsar-LMWD binaries are very common. According to the established formation scenario, these systems evolve from low-mass X-ray binaries in which a neutron star accretes matter from a giant star. Eventually, this star evolves into a white dwarf and the neutron star becomes a millisecond pulsar. Because of the strong tidal forces during the mass-transfer episode, the orbits of these systems are extremely circular, with eccentricities of ~0.000001 or so.”
 An artist's impression of a millisecond pulsar and its companion. The pulsar (seen in blue with two radiation beams) is accreting material from its bloated red companion star and increasing its rotation rate. Astronomers have measured the orbital parameters of four millisecond pulsars in the globular cluster 47 Tuc and modeled their possible formation and evolution paths. Credit: European Space Agency & Francesco Ferraro (Bologna Astronomical Observatory)
An artist’s impression of a millisecond pulsar and its companion. The pulsar (blue) is accreting material from its bloated red companion star and increasing its rotation rate. Credit: ESA/Francesco Ferraro (Bologna Astronomical Observatory)

For the sake of their study, which appeared recently in The Astrophysical Journal – titled “An Eccentric Binary Millisecond Pulsar with a Helium White Dwarf Companion in the Galactic Field” – the team relied on newly obtained optical photometry of the system provided by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), and spectroscopy from the Very Large Telescope from the Paranal Observatory in Chile.

In addition, they consulted recent studies that looked at other binary star systems that show this same kind of eccentric relationship. “We now know [of] 5 systems which deviate from this picture in that they have eccentricities of ~0.1 i.e. several orders of magnitude larger that what is expected in the standard scenario,” said Antoniadis. “Interestingly, they all appear to have similar eccentricities and orbital periods.”

From this, they were able to infer the temperature (8600 ± 190 K) and velocity ( km/s) of the white dwarf companion in the binary star system. Combined with constraints placed on the two body’s masses – 0.28 Solar Masses for the white dwarf and 1.4 for the pulsar – as well as their radii and surface gravity, they then tested three possible explanations for how this system came to be.

These included the possibility that neutrons stars (such as the millsecond pulsar being observed here) form through an accretion-induced collapse of a massive white dwarf. Similarly, they considered whether neutron stars undergo a transformation as they accrete material, which results in them becoming quark stars. During this process, the release of gravitational energy would be responsible for inducing the observed eccentricity.

Artist's illustration of a rotating neutron star, the remnants of a super nova explosion. Credit: NASA, Caltech-JPL
Artist’s illustration of a rotating neutron star, the remnants of a super nova explosion. Credit: NASA, Caltech-JPL

Second, they considered the possibility – consistent with current models of stellar evolution – that LMWDs within a certain mass range have strong stellar winds when they are very young (due to unstable hydrogen fusion). The team therefore looked at whether or not these strong stellar winds could have been what disrupted the orbit of the pulsar earlier in the system’s history.

Last, they considered the possibility that some of the material released from the white dwarf in the past (due to this same stellar wind) could have formed a short-lived circumbinary disk. This disk would then act like a third body, disturbing the system and increasing the eccentricity of the white dwarf’s orbit. In the end, they deemed that the first two scenarios were unlikely, since the mass inferred for the pulsar progenitor was not consistent with either model.

However, the third scenario, in which interaction with a circumbinary disk was responsible for the eccentricity, was consistent with their inferred parameters. What’s more, the third scenario predicts how (within a certain mass range) that there should be no circular binaries with similar orbital periods – which is consistent with all known examples of such systems. As Dr. Antoniadis explained:

“These observations show that the companion star in this system is indeed a low-mass white dwarf. In addition, the mass of the pulsar seems to be too low for #2 and a bit too high for #1. We also study the orbit of the binary in the Milky way, and it looks very similar to what we find for low-mass X-ray binaries. These pieces of evidence together favor the disk hypothesis.”

Cross-section of a neutron star. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Robert Schulze
Cross-section of a neutron star. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Robert Schulz

Of course, Dr. Antoniadis and his colleagues admit that more information is needed before their hypothesis can be deemed correct. However, should their results be borne out by future research, then they anticipate that it will be a valuable tool for future astronomers and astrophysicists looking to study the interaction between binary star systems and circumbinary disks.

In addition, the discovery of this high eccentricity binary system will make it easier to measure the masses of Low-Mass White Dwarfs with extreme precision in the coming years. This in turn should help astronomers to better understand the properties of these stars and what leads to their formation.

As history has taught us, understanding the Universe requires a serious commitment to the process of continuous discovery. And the more we discover, the stranger it seems to become, forcing us to reconsider what we think we know about it.

Further Reading: The Astrophysical Journal

Millisecond Pulsar Discovered In Rare Triple Star System

If you’re looking for something truly unique, then check out the cosmic menage aux trois ferreted out by a team of international astronomers using the Green Bank Telescope (GBT). This unusual group located in the constellation of Taurus includes a pulsar which is orbited by a pair of white dwarf stars. It’s the first time researchers have identified a triple star system containing a pulsar and the team has already employed the clock-like precision of the pulsar’s beat to observe the effects of gravitational interactions.

“This is a truly remarkable system with three degenerate objects. It has survived three phases of mass transfer and a supernova explosion, and yet it remained dynamically stable”, says Thomas Tauris, first author of the present study. “Pulsars have previously been found with planets and in recent years a number of peculiar binary pulsars were discovered which seem to require a triple system origin. But this new millisecond pulsar is the first to be detected with two white dwarfs.”

This wasn’t just a chance discovery. The observations of 4,200 light year distant J0337+1715 came from an intensive study program involving several of the world’s largest radio telescopes including the GBT, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and ASTRON’s Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope in the Netherlands. West Virginia University graduate student Jason Boyles was the first to detect the millisecond pulsar, spinning nearly 366 times per second, and captured in a system which isn’t any larger than Earth’s orbit around the Sun. This close knit association, coupled with the fact the trio of stars is far denser than the Sun create the perfect conditions to examine the true nature of gravity. Generations of scientists have waited for such an opportunity to study the ‘Strong Equivalence Principle’ postulated in Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. “This triple star system gives us the best-ever cosmic laboratory for learning how such three-body systems work, and potentially for detecting problems with General Relativity, which some physicists expect to see under such extreme conditions,” says first author Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

“It was a monumental observing campaign,” comments Jason Hessels, of ASTRON (the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy) and the University of Amsterdam. “For a time we were observing this pulsar every single day, just so we could make sense of the complicated way in which it was moving around its two companion stars.” Hessels led the frequent monitoring of the system with the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope.

Not only did the research team tackle a formidable amount of data, but they also took on the challenge of modeling the system. “Our observations of this system have made some of the most accurate measurements of masses in astrophysics,” says Anne Archibald, also from ASTRON. “Some of our measurements of the relative positions of the stars in the system are accurate to hundreds of meters, even though these stars are about 10,000 trillion kilometers from Earth” she adds.

Leading the study, Archibald created the system simulation which predicts its motions. Using the solid science methods once employed by Isaac Newton to study the Earth-Moon-Sun system, she then combined the data with the ‘new’ gravity of Albert Einstein, which was necessary to make sense of the information. “Moving forward, the system gives the scientists the best opportunity yet to discover a violation of a concept called the Strong Equivalence Principle. This principle is an important aspect of the theory of General Relativity, and states that the effect of gravity on a body does not depend on the nature or internal structure of that body.”

Need a refresher on the equivalence principle? Then if you don’t remember Galileo’s dropping two different weighted balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, then perhaps you’ll recall Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott’s dropping of a hammer and a falcon feather while standing on the airless surface of the Moon in 1971. Thanks to mirrors left on the lunar surface, laser ranging measurements have been studied for years and provide the strongest constraints on the validity of the equivalence principle. Here the experimental masses are the stars themselves, and their different masses and gravitational binding energies will serve to check whether they all fall towards each other according to the Strong Equivalence Principle, or not. “Using the pulsar’s clock-like signal we’ve started testing this,” Archibald explains. “We believe that our tests will be much more sensitive than any previous attempts to find a deviation from the Strong Equivalence Principle.” “We’re extremely happy to have such a powerful laboratory for studying gravity,” Hessels adds. “Similar star systems must be extremely rare in our galaxy, and we’ve luckily found one of the few!”

Original Story Source: Astronomie Netherlands News Release. Further reading: Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie (MPIfR) and NRAO Press Release.

NASA’s Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer Retires


For more than 16 years, 2,200 papers in refereed journals, 92 doctoral theses, and more than 1,000 rapid notifications alerting astronomers around the globe to new astronomical activity, the NASA Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer is now retired. It sent the last of its data on January 4th of this year and on January 5th the plucky little satellite was decommissioned. If you’re not familiar with Rossi’s activities, then picture sending back images and data on the extreme environments around white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes… because that’s what made the mission famous.

On December 30, 1995, the mission was launched as XTE from Cape Canaveral, Florida on board a Delta II 7920 rocket. Within weeks it was named in honor of Bruno Rossi, an MIT astronomer and a pioneer of X-ray astronomy and space plasma physics who died in 1993. However, the mission itself didn’t die – it excelled with honors. The entire scientific community recognized the importance of RXTE research and bestowed it with five awards – four Rossi Prizes (1999, 2003, 2006 and 2009) from the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the AAS and the 2004 NWO Spinoza prize, the highest Dutch science award, from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

On board, the Rossi was three scientific instruments housed in one unit. The first was the Proportional Counter Array (PCA), which was centered on the lower end of the energy band and was crafted by Goddard. The second instrument was the High Energy X-Ray Timing Experiment (HEXTE) that could be aimed at very specific targets and was manufactured by the University of California at San Diego for exploring the upper energy range. The last of the trio was the All-Sky Monitor developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. It took in about 80% of the sky during each orbit, delivering astronomers with an unprecedented amount of data on the wide variances of X-Ray sky and allowing them to record bright sources over a period of time as short as a few microseconds up to months. All of this information was taken in over a broad span of energy ranging from 2,000 to 250,000 electron volts.

The Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer asked little and returned much. Over its operating lifetime it gave us new insight in the life cycles of neutron stars and black holes. Through its eyes we learned about magnetars and discovered the first accreting millisecond pulsar. But that’s not all. The RXTE provided hard evidence which supported Einstein’s theory by observing “frame dragging” in the neighborhood of a black hole. Even though the instrumentation would be considered antique by today’s standards, it certainly served its purpose. “The spacecraft and its instruments had been showing their age, and in the end RXTE had accomplished everything we put it up there to do, and much more,” said Tod Strohmayer, RXTE project scientist at Goddard.

According to the NASA news release, the decision to decommission RXTE followed the recommendations of a 2010 review board tasked to evaluate and rank each of NASA’s operating astrophysics missions. The three and a half ton satellite is expected to return to Earth sometime between the years 2014 and 2023, depending on solar activity. It will have a fiery end… burning out like the superstar that it was. To celebrate its career, the scientific community will hold a special session on RXTE during the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Austin, Texas. The session is scheduled for Tuesday, January 10, at 3 p.m. CST. A press conference on new RXTE results will also be held at the meeting on January 10 at 1:45 p.m. EST. The decision to decommission RXTE followed the recommendations of a 2010 review board tasked to evaluate and rank each of NASA’s operating astrophysics missions. “After two days we listened to verify that none of the systems we turned off had autonomously re-activated, and we’ve heard nothing,” said Deborah Knapp, RXTE mission director at Goddard.

On the contrary… We heard a lot from Rossi!

Original Story Source: NASA News Release.