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

Missing Matter Found! Fast Radio Bursts Confirm Cosmological Model

In July of 2012, researchers at the CERN laboratory made history when they announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Though its existence had been hypothesized for over half a century, confirming its existence was a major boon for scientists. In discovering this one particle, the researchers were also able to confirm the Standard Model of particle physics. Much the same is true of our current cosmological model.

For decades, scientists been going by the theory that the Universe consists of about 70% dark energy, 25% dark matter and 5% “luminous matter” – i.e. the matter we can see. But even when all the visible matter is added up, there is a discrepancy where much of it is still considered “missing”. But thanks to the efforts of a team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), scientists now know that we have it right.

This began on April 18th, 2015, when the CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory in Australia detected a fast radio burst (FRB) coming from space. An international alert was immediately issued, and within a few hours, telescopes all around the world were looking for the signal. The CSIRO team began tracking it as well with the Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) located at the Paul Wild Observatory (north of Parkes).

image shows the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope on the left. On the right are successive zoom-ins in on the area where the signal came from (cyan circular region).. Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).
Image showing the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope (left) and zoom-ins on the area where the signal came from (left). Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).

With the help of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s (NAOJ) Subaru telescope in Hawaii, they were able to pinpoint where the signal was coming from. As the CSIRO team described in a paper submitted to Nature, they identified the source, which was an elliptical galaxy located 6 billion light years from Earth.

This was an historic accomplishment, since pinpointing the source of FRBs have never before been possible. Not only do the signals last mere milliseconds, but they are also subject to dispersion – i.e. a delay caused by how much material they pass through. And while FRBs have been detected in the past, the teams tracking them have only been able to obtain measurements of the dispersion, but never the signal’s redshift.

Redshift occurs as a result of an object moving away at relativistic speeds (a portion of the speed of light). For decades, scientists have been using it to determine how fast other galaxies are moving away from our own, and hence the rate of expansion of the Universe. Relying on optical data obtained by the Subaru telescope, the CSIRO team was able to obtain both the dispersion and the redshift data from this signal.

As stated in their paper, this information yielded a “direct measurement of the cosmic density of ionized baryons in the intergalactic medium”. Or, as Dr. Simon Johnston – of the CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division and the co-author of the study – explains, the team was not only to locate the source of the signal, but also obtain measurements which confirmed the distribution of matter in the Universe.

“Until now, the dispersion measure is all we had,” he said. “By also having a distance we can now measure how dense the material is between the point of origin and Earth, and compare that with the current model of the distribution of matter in the Universe. Essentially this lets us weigh the Universe, or at least the normal matter it contains.”

Dr. Evan Keane of the SKA Organization, and lead author on the paper, was similarly enthused about the team’s discovery. “[W]e have found the missing matter,” he said. “It’s the first time a fast radio burst has been used to conduct a cosmological measurement.”

As already noted, FRB signals are quite rare, and only 16 have been detected in the past. Most of these were found by sifting through data months or years after the signal was detected, by which time it would be impossible for any follow-up observations. To address this, Dr. Keane and his team developed a system to detect FRBs and immediately alert other telescopes, so that the source could be pinpointed.

artists rendition of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit: skatelescope.org
Artists impression of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit: skatelescope.org

It is known as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an international effort led by the SKA Organization to build the world’s largest radio telescope. Combining extreme sensitivity, resolution and a wide field of view, the SKA is expected to trace many FRBs to their host galaxies. In so doing, it is hoped the array will provide more measurements confirming the distribution of matter in the Universe, as well as more information on dark energy.

In the end, these and other discoveries by the SKA could have far-reaching consequences. Knowing the distribution of matter in the universe, and improving our understanding of dark matter (and perhaps even dark energy) could go a long way towards developing a Theory Of Everything (TOE). And knowing how all the fundamental forces of our universe interact will go a long way to finally knowing with certainty how it came to be.

These are exciting time indeed. With every step, we are peeling back the layers of our universe!

Further Reading: CSIRO, SKA Organization, Nature.