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

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

Black Hole Bonanza! Dozens (Potentially) Found In Andromeda As Another Study Probes X-Rays

More than two DOZEN potential black holes have been found in the nearest galaxy to our own. As if that find wasn’t enough, another research group is teaching us why extremely high-energy X-rays are present in black holes.

The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is home to 26 newly found black hole candidates that were produced from the collapse of stars that are five to 10 times as massive as the sun.

Using 13 years of observations from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, a research team pinpointed the locations. They also corroborated the information with X-ray spectra (distribution of X-rays with energy) from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory.

“When it comes to finding black holes in the central region of a galaxy, it is indeed the case where bigger is better,” stated co-author Stephen Murray, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

A close-up of the candidate black holes in Andromeda, as seen by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/SAO/R.Barnard, Z.Lee et al.), Optical (NOAO/AURA/NSF/REU Prog./B.Schoening, V.Harvey; Descubre Fndn./CAHA/OAUV/DSA/V.Peris
A close-up of the candidate black holes in Andromeda, as seen by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/SAO/R.Barnard, Z.Lee et al.), Optical (NOAO/AURA/NSF/REU Prog./B.Schoening, V.Harvey; Descubre Fndn./CAHA/OAUV/DSA/V.Peris

“In the case of Andromeda, we have a bigger bulge and a bigger supermassive black hole than in the Milky Way, so we expect more smaller black holes are made there as well,” Murray added.

The total number of candidates in M31 now stands at 35, since the researchers previously identified nine black holes in the area. All told, it’s the largest number of black hole candidates identified outside of the Milky Way.

Meanwhile, a study led by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center examined the high-radiation environment inside a black hole — by simulation, of course. The researchers performed a supercomputer modelling of gas moving into a black hole, and found that their work helps explain some mysterious X-ray observations of recent decades.

Researchers distinguish between “soft” and “hard” X-rays, or those X-rays that have low and high energy. Both types have been observed around black holes, but the hard ones puzzled astronomers a bit.

Here’s what happens inside a black hole, as best as we can figure:

– Gas falls towards the singularity, orbits the black hole, and gradually becomes a flattened disk;

– As gas piles up in the center of the disk, it compresses and heats up;

– At a temperature of about 20 million degrees Fahrenheit (12 million degrees Celsius), the gas emits “soft” X-rays.

So where did the hard X-rays — that with energy tens or even hundreds of times greater than soft X-rays — come from? The new study showed that magnetic fields are amplified in this environment that then “exerts additional influence” on the gas, NASA stated.

Artist's conception of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Credit: NASA

“The result is a turbulent froth orbiting the black hole at speeds approaching the speed of light. The calculations simultaneously tracked the fluid, electrical and magnetic properties of the gas while also taking into account Einstein’s theory of relativity,” NASA stated.

One key limitation of the study was it modelled a non-rotating black hole. Future work aims to model one that is rotating, NASA added.

You can check out more information about these two studies below:

– Andromeda black holes: Chandra identification of 26 new black hole candidates in the central region of M31. (Also available in the June 20 edition of The Astrophysical Journal.)

– X-ray modelling of black holes: X-ray Spectra from MHD Simulations of Accreting Black Holes. (Also available in the June 1 edition of The Astrophysical Journal.)

Sources: Chandra X-Ray Observatory and NASA

How Much Light Has The Universe Created Since the Big Bang?

The universe, most cosmologists tell us, began with a bang. At some point, the lights turned on. How much light has the universe produced since it was born, 13.8 billion years ago?

It seems a difficult answer at first glance. Turn on a light bulb, turn it off and the photons appear to vanish. In space, however, we can track them down. Every light particle ever radiated by galaxies and stars is still travelling, which is why we can peer so far back in time with our telescopes.

A new paper in the Astrophysical Journal explores the nature of this extragalactic background light, or EBL. Measuring the EBL, the team states, “is as fundamental to cosmology as measuring the heat radiation left over from the Big Bang (the cosmic microwave background) at radio wavelengths.”

Turns out that several NASA spacecraft have helped us understand the answer. They peered at the universe in every wavelength of light, ranging from long radio waves to short, energy-filled gamma rays. While their work doesn’t go back to the origin of the universe, it does give good measurements for the last five billion years or so. (About the age of the solar system, coincidentally.)

Artist's conception of how gamma rays (dashed lines) bump against photons of electromagnetic background light, producing electrons and positrons. Credit: Nina McCurdy and Joel R. Primack/UC-HiPACC; Blazar: Frame from a conceptual animation of 3C 120 created by Wolfgang Steffen/UNAM
Artist’s conception of how gamma rays (dashed lines) bump against photons of electromagnetic background light, producing electrons and positrons. Credit: Nina McCurdy and Joel R. Primack/UC-HiPACC; Blazar: Frame from a conceptual animation of 3C 120 created by Wolfgang Steffen/UNAM

It’s hard to see this faint background light against the powerful glow of stars and galaxies today, about as hard as it is to see the Milky Way from downtown Manhattan, the astronomers said.

The solution involves gamma rays and blazars, which are huge black holes in the heart of a galaxy that produce jets of material that point towards Earth. Just like a flashlight.

These blazars emit gamma rays, but not all of them reach Earth. Some, astronomers said, “strike a hapless EBL photon along the way.”

When this happens, the gamma ray and photon each zap out and produce a negatively charged electron and a positively charged positron.

More interestingly, blazars produce gamma rays at slightly different energies, which are in turn stopped by EBL photons at different energies themselves.

So, by figuring out how many gamma rays with different energies are stopped by the photons, we can see how many EBL photons are between us and the distant blazars.

Scientists have now just announced they could see how the EBL changed over time. Peering further back in the universe, as we said earlier, serves as a sort of time machine. So, the further back we see the gamma rays zap out, the better we can map out the EBL’s changes in earlier eras.

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (formerly called GLAST).  Credit: NASA
The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (formerly called GLAST). Credit: NASA

To get technical, this is how the astronomers did it:

– Compared the gamma-ray findings of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope to the intensity of X-rays measured by several X-ray observatories, including the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission, the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, and XMM/Newton. This let astronomers figure out what the blazars’ brightnesses were at different energies.

– Comparing those measurements to those taken by special telscopes on the ground that can look at the actual “gamma-ray flux” Earth receives from those blazars. (Gamma rays are annihilated in our atmosphere and produce a shower of subatomic particles, sort of like a “sonic boom”, called Cherenkov radiation.)

The measurements we have in this paper are about as far back as we can see right now, the astronomers added.

“Five billion years ago is the maximum distance we are able to probe with our current technology,” stated the paper’s lead author, Alberto Dominguez.

“Sure, there are blazars farther away, but we are not able to detect them because the high-energy gamma rays they are emitting are too attenuated by EBL when they get to us—so weakened that our instruments are not sensitive enough to detect them.”

Source: University of California High-Performance AstroComputing Center

New Image Shows Beautiful Violence in Centaurus A


The mysterious galaxy Centaurus A is a great place to study the extreme processes that occur near super-massive black holes, scientists say, and this beautiful new image from the combined forces of the Herschel Space Observatory and the XMM-Newton x-ray satellite reveals energetic processes going on deep in the galaxy’s core. This beautiful image tells a tale of past violence that occurred here.

The twisted disc of dust near the galaxy’s heart shows strong evidence that Centaurus A underwent a cosmic collision with another galaxy in the distant past. The colliding galaxy was ripped apart to form the warped disc, and the formation of young stars heats the dust to cause the infrared glow.

This multi-wavelength view of Centaurus A shows two massive jets of material streaming from a immense black hole in the center. When observed by radio telescopes, the jets stretch for up to a million light years, though the Herschel and XMM-Newton results focus on the inner regions.

At a distance of around 12 million light years from Earth, Centaurus A is the closest large elliptical galaxy to our own Milky Way.

“Centaurus A is the closest example of a galaxy to us with massive jets from its central black hole,” said Christine Wilson of McMaster University, Canada, who is leading the study of Centaurus A with Herschel. “Observations with Herschel, XMM-Newton and telescopes at many other wavelengths allow us to study their effects on the galaxy and its surroundings.”

Find more information on this image at ESA’s website.

Supernova G350 Kicks Up Some X-Ray Dust


Located some 14,700 light years from the Earth toward the center of our galaxy, a newly photographed supernova remnant cataloged as G350.1+0.3 is making astronomers scratch their heads. The star which created this unusual visage is suspected to have blown its top some 600 to 1,200 years ago. Although it would have been as bright as the event which created the “Crab”, chances are no one saw it due to the massive amounts of gas and dust at the Milky Way’s heart. Now NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the ESA’s XMM-Newton telescope has drawn back the curtain and we’re able to marvel at what happens when a supernova imparts a powerful X-ray “kick” to a neutron star!

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/I.Lovchinsky et al, IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Photographic proof from Chandra and XMM-Newton are full of clues which give rise to the possibility that a compact object located in the influence of G350.1+0.3 may be the core region of a shattered star. Since it is off-centered from the X-ray emissions, it must have received a powerful blast of energy during the supernova event and has been moving along at a speed of 3 million miles per hour ever since. This information agrees with an “exceptionally high speed derived for the neutron star in Puppis A and provides new evidence that extremely powerful ‘kicks’ can be imparted to neutron stars from supernova explosions.”

As you look at the photo, you’ll notice one thing in particular… the irregular shape. The Chandra data in this image appears as gold while the infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope is colored light blue. According to the research team, this unusual configuration may have been caused by the stellar debris field imparting itself into the surrounding cold molecular gas.

These results appeared in the April 10, 2011 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. The scientists on this paper were Igor Lovchinsky and Patrick Slane (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Bryan Gaensler (University of Sydney, Australia), Jack Hughes (Rutgers University), Stephen Ng (McGill University), Jasmina Lazendic (Monash University Clayton, Australia), Joseph Gelfand (New York University, Abu Dhabi), and Crystal Brogan (National Radio Astronomy Observatory).

Original Story Source: NASA Chandra News Release.