Asteroid Swarm ‘Pounded’ Pulsar Star, Causing Changes Visible From Earth

Artist's impression of an asteroid breaking up. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When you throw a bunch of rock and debris at a rapidly spinning star, what happens? A new study suggests that so-called pulsar stars change their dizzying spin rate as asteroids fall into the gaseous mass. This conclusion comes from observations of one pulsar (PSR J0738-4042) that is being “pounded” with debris from rocks, researchers said.

Lying 37,000 light-years from our planet in the southern constellation Puppis, this supernova remnant’s environment is swarming with rocks, radiation and “winds of particles”. One of those rocks likely was more than a billion metric tonnes in mass, which is nowhere near the mass of Earth (5.9 sextillion tonnes), but is still substantial.

“If a large rocky object can form here, planets could form around any star. That’s exciting,” stated Ryan Shannon, a researcher with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation who participated in the study.

Pulsars are sometimes called the clocks of the universe because their spins, fast as they are, precisely emit radio beams with each revolution — a beam that can be seen from Earth if our planet and the star are aligned in the right way. A 2008 study by Shannon and others predicted the spin could be altered by debris falling into the pulsar, which this new research appears to confirm.

Artist's conception of stellar rubble around pulsar 4U 0142+61. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of stellar rubble around pulsar 4U 0142+61. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We think the pulsar’s radio beam zaps the asteroid, vaporizing it. But the vaporized particles are electrically charged and they slightly alter the process that creates the pulsar’s beam,” Shannon said.

As stars explode, the researchers further suggest that not only do they leave behind a pulsar star remnant, but they also throw out debris that could then fall back towards the pulsar and create a debris disc. Another pulsar, J0146+61, appears to display this kind of disc. As with other protoplanetary systems, it’s possible the small bits of matter could gradually clump together to form bigger rocks.

You can read the study in Astrophysical Journal Letters or in preprint version on Arxiv. The study was led by Paul Brook, a Ph.D. student co-supervised by the University of Oxford and CSIRO. Observations were performed with the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory in South Africa, and CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope.

Source: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

This Spooky X-Ray ‘Hand’ Demonstrates A Pulsar Star Mystery

This X-ray nebula appears to look like a human hand. The ghostly shape comes courtesy of a pulsar star called PSR B1509-58 (B1509 for short) that is just 12 miles or 19 kilometers in diameter. The nebula itself is 150 light-years across. Image taken by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Credit: NASA/CXC/CfA/P. Slane et al.

That spooky hand in the image above is producing questions for scientists. While the shape only coincidentally looks like a human hand, scientists are still trying to figure out how a small star produced such a large shape visible in X-rays.

Pulsar star PSR B1509-58 (or B1509 for short) is a 12-mile (19-kilometer) remnant of a much larger star that exploded and left behind a quickly spinning neutron star. Energy leaves mostly via neutrino (or neutral particle) emission, with a bit more coming out via beta decay, or a radioactive process where charged particles leave from atoms.

Using a new model, scientists found that so much energy comes out from neutrino emission that there shouldn’t be enough left for the beta decay to set off the X-rays you see here in this image, or in other situations. Yet it’s still happening. And that’s why they’re hoping to take a closer look at the situation.

Artist's conception of a neutron star flare. Credit: University of California Santa Cruz
Artist’s conception of a neutron star flare. Credit: University of California Santa Cruz

“Scientists are intrigued by what exactly powers these massive explosions, and understanding this would yield important insights about the fundamental forces in nature, especially on the astronomical/cosmological scale,” stated Peter Moller, who is with the theoretical division of Los Alamos National Laboratory and participated in the research.

Preliminary studies indicate that to better understand what’s happening on the surface of these objects, computer models must endeavor to “describe the shape of each individual nuclide” (or atom that has a certain number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus). That’s because not all of these nuclides are simple spheres.

Using facilities at Los Alamos, scientists created databases with different types of nuclides that had various beta-decay properties. They then plugged this into a Michigan State University model of neutron stars to see what energy was released as the stars accrete or come together.

Accretion can cause neutron stars to flare violently
Accretion can cause neutron stars to flare violently

The results stood against what was a “common assumption”, the scientists stated, that the radioactive action would be enough to power the X-rays. They urge more study on this front, especially using a proposed Facility for Rare Isotope Beams that would be built at Michigan State, using funding from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. FRIB project participants are hoping that will be ready in the 2020s.

You can read more about the research in the Dec. 1 edition of Nature. It was led by Hendrik Schatz, a professor at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State.

Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory