Neutron Star Suffers a “Glitch”, Gives Astronomers a Glimpse Into How They Work

An image of the Vela pulsar in combined optical and xray. Image Credit: NASA/Chandra

What, exactly, is the inside of a neutron star like?

A neutron star is what remains after a massive star goes supernova. It’s a tightly-packed, ultra-dense body made of—you guessed it—neutrons. Actually, that’s not absolutely true.

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The Vela Pulsar as a Spirograph

This image compresses the Vela movie sequence into a single snapshot by merging pie-slice sections from eight individual frames. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

I loved my Spirograph when I was young, and obviously Eric Charles, a physicist with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope team did too. Charles has taken data from Fermi’s Large Area Telescope and turned it into a mesmerizing movie of the Vela Pulsar. It actually is a reflection of the complex motion of the spacecraft as it stared at the pulsar.

The video shows the intricate pattern traced by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope’s view of the Vela Pulsar over the spacecraft’s 51 months in orbit.

Fermi orbits our planet every 95 minutes, building up increasingly deeper views of the universe with every circuit. Its wide-eyed Large Area Telescope (LAT) sweeps across the entire sky every three hours, capturing the highest-energy form of light — gamma rays — from sources across the universe. The Fermi telescope has given us our best view yet of the bizarre world of the high energy Universe, which include supermassive black holes billions of light-years away to intriguing objects in our own galaxy, such as X-ray binaries, supernova remnants and pulsars.

Francis Reddy from the Goddard Spaceflight Center describes the movie:

The Vela pulsar outlines a fascinating pattern in this movie showing 51 months of position and exposure data from Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT). The pattern reflects numerous motions of the spacecraft, including its orbit around Earth, the precession of its orbital plane, the manner in which the LAT nods north and south on alternate orbits, and more. The movie renders Vela’s position in a fisheye perspective, where the middle of the pattern corresponds to the central and most sensitive portion of the LAT’s field of view. The edge of the pattern is 90 degrees away from the center and well beyond what scientists regard as the effective limit of the LAT’s vision. Better knowledge of how the LAT’s sensitivity changes across its field of view helps Fermi scientists better understand both the instrument and the data it returns.

The pulsar traces out a loopy, hypnotic pattern reminiscent of art produced by the colored pens and spinning gears of a Spirograph, a children’s toy that produces geometric patterns.

The Vela pulsar spins 11 times a second and is the brightest persistent source of gamma rays the LAT sees. While gamma-ray bursts and flares from distant black holes occasionally outshine the pulsar, the Vela pulsar is like a persistant beacon, much like the light from a lighthouse.

Find out more about this movie and the Fermi Telescope here.

New Movie of a Neutron Star Looks Eerily Like the Phantom of the Opera

The Vela pulsar, a neutron star that was formed when a massive star collapsed. Credit: NASA

This incredible new movie of the Vela pulsar has the unnerving appearance of the Phantom of the Opera – wearing not only a mask, but also a steam-blowing hat like the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.” What you are seeing here are observations from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, showing a fast moving jet of particles produced by a rapidly rotating neutron star. Scientists say these observations may provide new insight into the nature of some of the densest matter in the universe.

The Vela pulsar is about 1,000 light-years from Earth, about 19 km (12 miles) in diameter, and makes a complete rotation in 89 milliseconds. As the pulsar whips around, it spews out a jet of charged particles that race along the pulsar’s rotation axis at about 70 percent of the speed of light. The Chandra data used in the movie were obtained from June to September 2010, and it may suggest the pulsar may be slowly wobbling, or precessing, as it spins. The period of the precession, which is analogous to the slow wobble of a spinning top, is estimated to be about 120 days.

“We think the Vela pulsar is like a rotating garden sprinkler — except with the water blasting out at over half the speed of light,” said Martin Durant of the University of Toronto in Canada, who is the first author of the paper describing these results.

The eight images shown in the movie suggest that the pulsar may be slowly wobbling, or precessing, as it spins. If the evidence for precession of the Vela pulsar is confirmed, it would be the first time that a jet from a neutron star has been found to be wobbling, or precessing, in this way.

One possible cause of precession for a spinning neutron star is that it has become slightly distorted and is no longer a perfect sphere. This distortion might be caused by the combined action of the fast rotation and “glitches”, sudden increases of the pulsar’s rotational speed due to the interaction of the superfluid core of the neutron star with its crust.

A paper describing these results will be published in The Astrophysical Journal on January 10, 2013.

This is the second Chandra movie of the Vela pulsar. The first one, released in 2003, looks like a Halloween Jack-o-lanatern gone wrong:

This movie contains shorter, unevenly spaced observations so that the changes in the jet were less pronounced and the authors did not argue that precession was occurring. However, based on the same data, Avinash Deshpande of Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Raman Research Institute in Bangalore, India, and the late Venkatraman Radhakrishnan, argued in a 2007 paper that the Vela pulsar might be precessing.

The Earth also precesses as it spins, with a period of about 26,000 years. In the future Polaris will no longer be the “north star” and other stars will take its place. The period of the Vela precession is much shorter and is estimated to be about 120 days.

Wide field Optical and X-ray image of the supernova remnant in the Vela Pulsar region. Credit: Anglo-Australian Observatory.
Wide field Optical and X-ray image of the supernova remnant in the Vela Pulsar region. Credit: Anglo-Australian Observatory.

The supernova that formed the Vela pulsar exploded over 10,000 years ago. This optical image from the Anglo-Australian Observatory’s UK Schmidt telescope shows the enormous apparent size of the supernova remnant formed by the explosion. The full size of the remnant is about eight degrees across, or about 16 times the angular size of the Moon. The square near the center shows the Chandra image with a larger field-of-view than used for the movie, with the Vela pulsar in the middle.

A 'Phantom of the Opera' - like mask.
A 'Phantom of the Opera' - like mask.