In June of 2017, NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) was installed aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The purpose of this instrument is to provide high-precision measurements of neutron stars and other super-dense objects that are on the verge of collapsing into black holes. NICER is also be the first instrument designed to test technology that will use pulsars as navigation beacons.
Recently, NASA used data obtained from NICER’s first 22 months of science operations to create an x-ray map of the entire sky. What resulted was a lovely image that looks like a long-exposure image of fire dancers, solar flare activity from hundreds of stars, or even a visualization of the world wide web. But in fact, each bright spot represents an x-ray source while the bright filaments are their paths across the night sky.
Right, magnetars. Perhaps one of the most ferocious beasts to inhabit the cosmos. Loud, unruly, and temperamental, they blast their host galaxies with wave after wave of electromagnetic radiation, running the gamut from soft radio waves to hard X-rays. They are rare and poorly understood.
Some of these magnetars spit out a lot of radio waves, and frequently. The perfect way to observe them
would be to have a network of high-quality radio dishes across the world, all
continuously observing to capture every bleep and bloop. Some sort of network
of deep-space dishes.
Neutron stars are one of the most fascinating astronomical objects in the known Universe. In addition to being the densest type of star (with the possible exception of quark stars), they have also been known to form binary pairs with massive stars. To date, only 39 such systems have been discovered, and even fewer have been detected that were composed of a massive star and a very high energy (VHE) gamma-ray neutron star.
To date, only two of these systems have been found, the second of which was discovered just a few years ago by a team of international astronomers known as the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) collaboration. In addition to being a rare find, the discovery was also very fortunate, since the unusual behavior they observed coming from this system will not be happening again until 2067.
Pulsars are what remains when a massive star undergoes gravitational collapse and explodes in a supernova. These remnants (also known as neutron stars) are extremely dense, with several Earth-masses crammed into a space the size of a small country. They also have powerful magnetic fields, which causes them to rotate rapidly and emit powerful beams of gamma rays or x-rays – which lends them the appearance of a lighthouse.
In some cases, pulsars spin especially fast, taking only milliseconds to complete a single rotation. These “millisecond pulsars” remain a source of mystery for astronomers. And after following up on previous observations, researchers using the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) radio telescope in the Netherlands identified a pulsar (PSR J0952?0607) that spins more than 42,000 times per minute, making it the second-fastest pulsar ever discovered.
This study was part of an ongoing LOFAR survey of energetic sources originally identified by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray space telescope. The purpose of this survey was to distinguish between the gamma-ray sources Fermi detected, which could have been caused by neutron stars, pulsars, supernovae or the regions around black holes. As Elizabeth Ferrara, a member of the discovery team at NASA’s Goddard Space Center, explained in a NASA press release:
“Roughly a third of the gamma-ray sources found by Fermi have not been detected at other wavelengths. Many of these unassociated sources may be pulsars, but we often need follow-up from radio observatories to detect the pulses and prove it. There’s a real synergy across the extreme ends of the electromagnetic spectrum in hunting for them.”
Their follow-up observations indicated that this particular source was a pulsar that spins at a rate of 707 revolutions (Hz) per second, which works out to 42,000 revolutions per minute. This makes it, by definition, a millisecond pulsar. The team also confirmed that it is about 1.4 Solar Masses and is orbited every 6.4 hours by a companion star that has been stripped down to less than 0.05 Jupiter masses.
The presence of this lightweight companion is a further indication of how the spin of this pulsar became so rapid. Over time, matter would have been stripped away from the star, gradually accreting onto PSR J0952?0607. This would not only raise its spin rate but also greatly increase its electromagnetic emissions. The process continues to this day, with the star becoming increasingly smaller as the pulsar becomes more energetic.
Because of the nature of this relationship (which can only be described as “cannibalistic”), systems like PSR J0952?0607 are often called “black widow” or “redback” pulsars. Most of these systems were found by following up on sources identified by the Fermi mission, since the process has been known to result in a considerable amount of electromagnetic radiation being released.
Beyond the discovery of this record-setting pulsar, the LOFAR discovery could also be an indication that there is a new population of ultra-fast spinning pulsars in our Universe. As Dr. Bassa explained:
“LOFAR picked up pulses from J0952 at radio frequencies around 135 MHz, which is about 45 percent lower than the lowest frequencies of conventional radio searches. We found that J0952 has a steep radio spectrum, which means its radio pulses fade out very quickly at higher frequencies. It would have been a challenge to find it without LOFAR.”
The fastest spinning pulsar known, PSR J1748-2446ad, spins just slightly faster than PSR J0952?0607 – reaching a rate of nearly 43,000 rpm (or 716 revolutions per second). But some theorists think that pulsars could spin as fast as 72,000 rpm (almost twice as fast) before breaking up. This remains a theory, since rapidly-spinning pulsars are rather difficult to detect.
But with the help of instrument like LOFAR, that could be changing. For instance, both PSR J1748-2446ad and PSR J0952?0607 were shown to have steep spectra – much like radio galaxies and Active Galactic Nuclei. The same was true of J1552+5437, another millisecond pular detected by LOFAR which spins at 25,000 rpm.
As Ziggy Pleunis – a doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal and a co-author on the study – indicated, this could be a sign that the fastest-spinning pulsars are just waiting to be found.
“There is growing evidence that the fastest-spinning pulsars tend to have the steepest spectra,” he said. “Since LOFAR searches are more sensitive to these steep-spectrum radio pulsars, we may find that even faster pulsars do, in fact, exist and have been missed by surveys at higher frequencies.”
As with many other areas of astronomical research, improvements in instrumentation and methodology are allowing for new and exciting discoveries. As expected, some of the things we are finding are forcing astronomers to rethink more than a few previously-held assumptions about the nature and limits of certain phenomena.
Be sure to enjoy this NASA video that explains “black widow” pulsars and the ongoing search to find them:
When a large star undergoes gravitational collapse near the end of its lifespan, a neutron star is often the result. This is what remains after the outer layers of the star have been blown off in a massive explosion (i.e. a supernova) and the core has compressed to extreme density. Afterwards, the star’s rotation rate increases considerably, and where they emit beams of electromagnetic radiation, they become “pulsars”.
And now, 50 years after they were first discovered by British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell, the first mission devoted to the study of these objects is about to be mounted. It is known as the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), a two-part experiment that will be deployed to the International Space Station this summer. If all goes well, this platform will shed light on one of the greatest astronomical mysteries, and test out new technologies.
Astronomers have been studying neutron stars for almost a century, which have yielded some very precise measurements of their masses and radii. However, what actually transpires in the interior of a neutron star remains an enduring mystery. While numerous models have been advanced that describe the physics governing their interiors, it is still unclear how matter would behave under these types of conditions.
Not surprising, since neutron stars typically hold about 1.4 times the mass of our Sun (or 460,000 times the mass of the Earth) within a volume of space that is the size of a city. This kind of situation, where a considerable amount of matter is packed into a very small volume – resulting in crushing gravity and an incredible matter density – is not seen anywhere else in the Universe.
As Keith Gendreau, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained in a recent NASA press statement:
“The nature of matter under these conditions is a decades-old unsolved problem. Theory has advanced a host of models to describe the physics governing the interiors of neutron stars. With NICER, we can finally test these theories with precise observations.”
NICE was developed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center with the assistance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Naval Research Laboratory, and universities across the U.S. and Canada. It consists of a refrigerator-sized apparatus that contains 56 X-ray telescopes and silicon detectors. Though it was originally intended to be deployed late in 2016, a launch window did not become available until this year.
Once installed as an external payload aboard the ISS, it will gather data on neutron stars (mainly pulsars) over an 18-month period by observing neutron stars in the X-ray band. Even though these stars emit radiation across the spectrum, X-ray observations are believed to be the most promising when it comes to revealing things about their structure and various high-energy phenomena associated with them.
These include starquakes, thermonuclear explosions, and the most powerful magnetic fields known in the Universe. To do this, NICER will collect X-rays generated from these stars’ magnetic fields and magnetic poles. This is key, since it is at the poles that the strength of a neutron star’s magnetic fields causes particles to be trapped and rain down on the surface, which produces X-rays.
In pulsars, it is these intense magnetic fields which cause energetic particles to become focused beams of radiation. These beams are what give pulsars their name, as they appear like flashes thanks to the star’s rotation (giving them their “lighthouse”-like appearance). As physicists have observed, these pulsations are predictable, and can therefore be used the same way atomic-clocks and Global Positioning System are here on Earth.
While the primary goal of NICER is science, it also offers the possibility of testing new forms of technology. For instance, the instrument will be used to conduct the first-ever demonstration of autonomous X-ray pulsar-based navigation. As part of the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT), the team will use NICER’s telescopes to detect the X-ray beams generated by pulsars to estimate the arrival times of their pulses.
The team will then use specifically-designed algorithms to create an on-board navigation solution. In the future, interstellar spaceships could theoretically rely on this to calculate their location autonomously. This wold allow them to find their way in space without having to rely on NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), which is considered to be the most sensitive telecommunications system in the world.
Beyond navigation, the NICER project also hopes to conduct the first-ever test of the viability of X-ray based-communications (XCOM). By using X-rays to send and receive data (in the same way we currently use radio waves), spacecraft could transmit data at the rate of gigabits per second over interplanetary distances. Such a capacity could revolutionize the way we communicate with crewed missions, rover and orbiters.
Central to both demonstrations is the Modulated X-ray Source (MXS), which the NICER team developed to calibrate the payload’s detectors and test the navigation algorithms. Generating X-rays with rapidly varying intensity (by switching on and off many times per second), this device will simulate a neutron star’s pulsations. As Gendreau explained:
“This is a very interesting experiment that we’re doing on the space station. We’ve had a lot of great support from the science and space technology folks at NASA Headquarters. They have helped us advance the technologies that make NICER possible as well as those that NICER will demonstrate. The mission is blazing trails on several different levels.”
It is hoped that the MXS will be ready to ship to the station sometime next year; at which time, navigation and communication demonstrations could begin. And it is expected that before July 25th, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Bell’s discovery, the team will have collected enough data to present findings at scientific conferences scheduled for later this year.
If successful, NICER could revolutionize our understanding of how neutron stars (and how matter behaves in a super-dense state) behaves. This knowledge could also help us to understand other cosmological mysteries such as black holes. On top of that, X-ray communications and navigation could revolutionize space exploration and travel as we know it. In addition to providing greater returns from robotic missions located closer to home, it could also enable more lucrative missions to locations in the outer Solar System and even beyond.
Since they were first discovered in the late 1960s, pulsars have continued to fascinate astronomers. Even though thousands of these pulsing, spinning stars have been observed in the past five decades, there is much about them that continues to elude us. For instance, while some emit both radio and gamma ray pulses, others are restricted to either radio or gamma ray radiation.
However, thanks to a pair of studies from two international teams of astronomers, we may be getting closer to understanding why this is. Relying on data collected by the Chandra X-ray Observatory of two pulsars (Geminga and B0355+54), the teams was able to show how their emissions and the underlying structure of their nebulae (which resemble jellyfish) could be related.
Located 800 and 3400 light years from Earth (respectively), the Geminga and B0355+54 pulsars are quite similar. In addition to having similar rotational periods (5 times per second), they are also about the same age (~500 million years). However, Geminga emits only gamma-ray pulses while B0355+54 is one of the brightest known radio pulsars, but emits no observable gamma rays.
What’s more, their PWNs are structured quite differently. Based on composite images created using Chandra X-ray data and Spitzer infrared data, one resembles a jellyfish whose tendrils are relaxed while the other looks like a jellyfish that is closed and flexed. As Bettina Posselt – a senior research associate in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, and the lead author on the Geminga study – told Universe Today via email:
“The Chandra data resulted in two very different X-ray images of the pulsar wind nebulae around the pulsars Geminga and PSR B0355+54. While Geminga has a distinct three-tail structure, the image of PSR B0355+54 shows one broad tail with several substructures.”
In all likelihood, Geminga’s and B0355+54 tails are narrow jets emanating from the pulsar’s spin poles. These jets lie perpendicular to the donut-shaped disk (aka. a torus) that surrounds the pulsars equatorial regions. As Noel Klingler, a graduate student at the George Washington University and the author of the B0355+54 paper, told Universe Today via email:
“The interstellar medium (ISM) isn’t a perfect vacuum, so as both of these pulsars plow through space at hundreds of kilometers per second, the trace amount of gas in the ISM exerts pressure, thus pushing back/bending the pulsar wind nebulae behind the pulsars, as is shown in the images obtained by the Chandra X-ray Observatory.”
Their apparent structures appear to be due to their disposition relative to Earth. In Geminga’s case, the view of the torus is edge-on while the jets point out to the sides. In B0355+54’s case, the torus is seen face-on while the jets points both towards and away from Earth. From our vantage point, these jets look like they are on top of each other, which is what makes it look like it has a double tail. As Posselt describes it:
“Both structures can be explained with the same general model of pulsar wind nebulae. The reasons for the different images are (a) our viewing perspective, and (b) how fast and where to the pulsar is moving. In general, the observable structures of such pulsar wind nebulae can be described with an equatorial torus and polar jets. Torus and Jets can be affected (e.g., bent jets) by the “head wind” from the interstellar medium the pulsar is moving in. Depending on our viewing angle of the torus, jets and the movement of the pulsar, different pictures are detected by the Chandra X-ray observatory. Geminga is seen “from the side” (or edge-on with respect to the torus) with the jets roughly located in the plane of the sky while for B0355+54 we look almost directly to one of the poles.”
This orientation could also help explain why the two pulsars appear to emit different types of electromagnetic radiation. Basically, the magnetic poles – which are close to their spin poles – are where a pulsar’s radio emissions are believed to come from. Meanwhile, gamma rays are believed to be emitted along a pulsar’s spin equator, where the torus is located.
“The images reveal that we see Geminga from edge-on (i.e., looking at its equator) because we see X-rays from particles launched into the two jets (which are initially aligned with the radio beams), which are pointed into the sky, and not at Earth,” said Klingler. “This explains why we only see Gamma-ray pulses from Geminga. The images also indicate that we are looking at B0355+54 from a top-down perspective (i.e., above one of the poles, looking into the jets). So as the pulsar rotates, the center of the radio beam sweeps across Earth, and we detect the pulses; but the gamma-rays are launched straight out from the pulsar’s equator, so we don’t see them from B0355.”
“The geometrical constraints on each pulsar (where are the poles and the equator) from the pulsar wind nebulae help to explain findings regarding the radio and gamma-ray pulses of these two neutron stars,” said Posselt. “For example, Geminga appears radio-quiet (no strong radio pulses) because we don’t have a direct view to the poles and pulsed radio emission is thought to be generated in a region close to the poles. But Geminga shows strong gamma-ray pulsations, because these are not produced at the poles, but closer to the equatorial region.”
These observations were part of a larger campaign to study six pulsars that have been seen to emit gamma-rays. This campaign is being led by Roger Romani of Stanford University, with the collaboration of astronomers and researchers from GWU (Oleg Kargaltsev), Penn State University (George Pavlov), and Harvard University (Patrick Slane).
Not only are these studies shedding new light on the properties of pulsar wind nebulae, they also provide observational evidence to help astronomers create better theoretical models of pulsars. In addition, studies like these – which examine the geometry of pulsar magnetospheres – could allow astronomers to better estimate the total number of exploded stars in our galaxy.
By knowing the range of angles at which pulsars are detectable, they should be able to better estimate the amount that are not visible from Earth. Yet another way in which astronomers are working to find the celestial objects that could be lurking in humanity’s blind spots!
The galactic center is a happening place, with lots of gas, dust, stars, and surprising binary stars orbiting a supermassive black hole about three million times the size of our sun. With so many stars, astronomers estimate that there should be hundreds of dead ones. But to date, scientists have found only a single young pulsar at the galactic center where there should be as many as 50.
The question thus arises: where are all those rapidly spinning, dense stellar corpses known as pulsars? Joseph Bramante of Notre Dame University and astrophysicist Tim Linden of the University of Chicago have a possible solution to this missing-pulsar problem, which they describe in a paper accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Maybe those pulsars are absent because dark matter, which is plentiful in the galactic center, gloms onto the pulsars, accumulating until the pulsars become so dense they collapse into a black hole. Basically, they disappeared into the fabric of space and time by becoming so massive that they punched a hole right through it.
Dark matter, as you may know, is the theoretical mass that astrophysicists believe fills roughly a quarter of our universe. Alas, it is invisible and undetectable by conventional means, making its presence known only in how its gravitational pull interacts with other stellar objects.
One of the more popular candidates for dark matter is Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, otherwise known as WIMPs. Underground detectors are currently hunting for WIMPs and debate has raged over whether gamma rays streaming from the galactic center come from WIMPs annihilating one another.
In general, any particle and its antimatter partner will annihilate each other in a flurry of energy. But WIMPs don’t have an antimatter counterpart. Instead, they’re thought to be their own antiparticles, meaning that one WIMP can annihilate another.
But over the last few years, physicists have considered another class of dark matter called asymmetric dark matter. Unlike WIMPs, this type of dark matter does have an antimatter counterpart.
Asymmetric dark matter appeals to physicists because it’s intrinsically linked to the imbalance of matter and antimatter. Basically, there’s a lot more matter in the universe than antimatter – which is good considering anything less than an imbalance would lead to our annihilation. Likewise, according to the theory, there’s much more dark matter than anti-dark-matter.
Physicists think that in the beginning, the Big Bang should’ve created as much matter as antimatter, but something altered this balance. No one’s sure what this mechanism was, but it might have triggered an imbalance in dark matter as well – hence it is “asymmetric”.
Dark matter is concentrated at the galactic center, and if it’s asymmetric, then it could collect at the center of pulsars, pulled in by their extremely strong gravity. Eventually, the pulsar would accumulate so much mass from dark matter that it would collapse into a black hole.
The idea that dark matter can cause pulsars to implode isn’t new. But the new research is the first to apply this possibility to the missing-pulsar problem.
If the hypothesis is correct, then pulsars around the galactic center could only get so old before grabbing so much dark matter that they turn into black holes. Because the density of dark matter drops the farther you go from the center, the researchers predict that the maximum age of pulsars will increase with distance from the center. Observing this distinct pattern would be strong evidence that dark matter is not only causing pulsars to implode, but also that it’s asymmetric.
“The most exciting part about this is just from looking at pulsars, you can perhaps say what dark matter is made of,” Bramante said. Measuring this pattern would also help physicists narrow down the mass of the dark matter particle.
But as Bramante admits, it won’t be easy to detect this signature. Astronomers will need to collect much more data about the galactic center’s pulsars by searching for radio signals, he claims. The hope is that as astronomers explore the galactic center with a wider range of radio frequencies, they will uncover more pulsars.
But of course, the idea that dark matter is behind the missing pulsar problem is still highly speculative, and the likelihood of it is being called into question.
“I think it’s unlikely—or at least it is too early to say anything definitive,” said Zurek, who was one of the first to revive the notion of asymmetric dark matter in 2009. The tricky part is being able to know for sure that any measurable pattern in the pulsar population is due to dark-matter-induced collapse and not something else.
Even if astronomers find this pulsar signature, it’s still far from being definitive evidence for asymmetric dark matter. As Kathryn Zurek of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory explained: “Realistically, when dark matter is detected, we are going to need multiple, complementary probes to begin to be convinced that we have a handle on the theory of dark matter.”
And asymmetric dark matter may not have anything to do with the missing pulsar problem at all. The problem is relatively new, so astronomers may find more plausible, conventional explanations.
“I’d say give them some time and maybe they come up with some competing explanation that’s more fleshed out,” Bramante said.
Nevertheless, the idea is worth pursuing, says Haibo Yu of the University of California, Riverside. If anything, this analysis is a good example of how scientists can understand dark matter by exploring how it may influence astrophysical objects. “This tells us there are ways to explore dark matter that we’ve never thought of before,” he said. “We should have an open mind to see all possible effects that dark matter can have.”
There’s one other way to determine if dark matter can cause pulsars to implode: To catch them in the act. No one knows what a collapsing pulsar might look like. It might even blow up.
“While the idea of an explosion is really fun to think about, what would be even cooler is if it didn’t explode when it collapsed,” Bramante said. A pulsar emits a powerful beam of radiation, and as it spins, it appears to blink like a lighthouse with a frequency as high as several hundred times per second. As it implodes into a black hole, its gravity gets stronger, increasingly warping the surrounding space and time.
Studying this scenario would be a great way to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Bramante says. According to theory, the pulse rate would get slower and slower until the time between pulses becomes infinitely long. At that point, the pulses would stop entirely and the pulsar would be no more.
Imagine that you’re innocently running your computer in pursuit of helping data crunch a huge science project. Then, out of the thousands of machines running the project, yours happens to stumble across a discovery. That’s what happened to several volunteers with [email protected], which seeks pulsars in data from the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, among other projects.
“At first I was a bit dumbfounded and thought someone was playing a hoax on me. But after I did some research,” everything checked out. That someone as insignificant as myself could make a difference was amazing,” stated Kentucky resident Thomas M. Jackson, who contributed to the project.
Pulsars, a type of neutron star, are the leftovers of stars that exploded as supernovae. They rotate rapidly, with such precision in their rotation periods that they have sometimes been likened to celestial clocks. Although the discovery is exciting to the eight volunteers because they are the first to find these gamma-ray pulsars as part of a volunteer computing project, the pulsars also have some interesting scientific features.
The four pulsars were discovered in the plane of the Milky Way in an area that radio telescopes had looked at previously, but weren’t able to find themselves. This means that the pulsars are likely only visible in gamma rays, at least from the vantage point of Earth; the objects emit their radiation in a narrow direction with radio, but a wider stripe with gamma rays. (After the discoveries, astronomers used the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy’s 100-meter Effelsberg radio telescope and the Australian Parkes Observatory to peer at those spots in the sky, and still saw no radio signals.)
Two of the pulsars also “hiccup” or exhibit a pulsar glitch, when the rotation sped up and then fell back to the usual rotation period a few weeks later. Astronomers are still learning more about these glitches, but they do know that most of them happen in young pulsars. All four pulsars are likely between 30,000 and 60,000 years old.
“The first-time discovery of gamma-ray pulsars by [email protected] is a milestone – not only for us but also for our project volunteers. It shows that everyone with a computer can contribute to cutting-edge science and make astronomical discoveries,” stated co-author Bruce Allen, principal investigator of [email protected] “I’m hoping that our enthusiasm will inspire more people to help us with making further discoveries.”
[email protected] is run jointly by the Center for Gravitation and Cosmology at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and the Albert Einstein Institute in Hannover, Germany. It is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Max Planck Society. As for the volunteers, their names were mentioned in the scientific literature and they also received certificates of discovery for their work.