The cosmic zoo has strange beasts that astronomers stumble across in the most fascinating ways. Not long ago a team in Australia found a highly unusual magnetar, one of the weirder denizens of the starry zoo. It’s called GPM J1839-10 and it lies some 15,000 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Scutum.
GPM J1839-10 actually showed up in observations beginning several decades ago, hiding in plain sight. Astronomers described it as an “enigmatic transient object” that would appear and disappear, emitting energy three times per hour. It wasn’t until 2022, when a team from Curtin University observed it with the Murchison Wide-Field Array radio telescope on Wajarri Yamaji Country in Outback Western Australia, that they identified it as a possible long-period magnetar. “This remarkable object challenges our understanding of neutron stars and magnetars, which are some of the most exotic and extreme objects in the Universe,” said team lead Natasha Hurley-Walker.
It’s only the second long-period magnetar ever found. Hurley-Walker’s undergraduate student Tyrone O’Doherty found the first one. His discovery took everyone by surprise. “We were stumped,” Hurley-Walker said. “So we started searching for similar objects to find out if it was an isolated event or just the tip of the iceberg.”
An artist’s impression of the Murchison Widefield Array radio telescope observing the ultra-long period magnetar, 15,000 light-years away from Earth in the Scutum Constellation. Credit: ICRAR
Magnetar the Magnificent
Astronomers have studied magnetars for years. They’re extremely magnetic dead stars that release energy in bursts ranging from seconds to a few minutes in length. They probably originate as massive stars die in supernovae and with the leftover remnant collapsing to form a neutron star. There’s also some evidence that colliding neutron stars could create magnetars.
The core of a magnetar is a spinning neutron star only about 20 kilometers across. They are likely to have solid surfaces. The core usually has a mass of 100 million tons or more. It has an incredibly strong magnetic field (hence the name “magnetar”). As it spins, the magnetar emits periodic bursts of radio and other emissions.
An artist view of a highly magnetized neutron star, a magnetar. Credit: Carl Knox/ OzGrav
Charting those outbursts is like listening to a ticking clock but using radio telescopes to capture the signals. Most magnetars lose their magnetic fields after about 10,000 years, which makes them short-lived phenomena in cosmic terms. This new one emits energy bursts for five minutes every 22 minutes. That makes it the longest period magnetar found. It might also be an aging one, about to stop advertising its presence.
Finding GPM J1839-10 Again and Again
As part of their research, the astronomy team looked for evidence of GPM J1839-10 in the observational logs of other radio observatories over the past decades. That’s when they found it had been observed since 1988. It was just that nobody knew exactly what it was.
“It showed up in observations by
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Spider Pulsars are Tearing Apart Stars in the Omega Cluster
Pulsars are extreme objects. They’re what’s left over when a massive star collapses on itself and explodes as a supernova. This creates a neutron star. Neutron stars spin, and some of them emit radiation. When they emit radiation from their poles that we can see, we call them pulsars.
In the last decade or so, astrophysicists have discovered many more millisecond pulsars, ones that rotate very rapidly. Not only is the number of known pulsars increasing, but researchers have also identified pulsar sub-types that have companions. These are called spider pulsars, and their companions face great peril. New research sheds light on how spider pulsars in Omega Centauri are tearing their companions to pieces with their powerful outflows.
The first spider pulsar ever discovered is PSR B1957+20, more widely known as the Black Widow Pulsar. It has a companion that’s either a brown dwarf or a super Jupiter. High-energy outflows from the Black Widow are destroying its companion. All pulsars that destroy their companions are known as spider pulsars, but there are two further sub-types of spider pulsars: redback pulsars and black widow pulsars.
Artist’s impression of the pulsar PSR B1957+20 (seen in the background) through the cloud of gas enveloping its brown dwarf star companion. Credit: Dr. Mark A. Garlick; Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto
Researchers working with the Chandra Space Telescope have examined Omega Centauri to learn more about how spider pulsars destroy their binary companions. Their work will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The title is “A Chandra X-ray study of millisecond pulsars in the globular cluster Omega Centauri: a correlation between spider pulsar companion mass and X-ray luminosity.” The authors are Jiaqi Zhao and Craig O. Heinke, both from the Physics Department at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.
Omega Centauri is the largest globular cluster (GC) that we know of in the Milky Way. It’s almost 16,000 light-years away and contains about 10 million stars. Some of those stars are spider pulsars, a class of millisecond pulsars with companions.
Visualization of a fast-rotating pulsar. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab
Spider pulsars are terribly destructive neighbours. Their energetic winds methodically strip away their companions’ outer layers. To understand more about this phenomenon, the pair of researchers examined Chandra data from Omega Centauri, home to 18 recently discovered spider pulsars.
“Millisecond pulsars (MSPs) are faint X-ray sources commonly observed in Galactic globular clusters (GCs),” the researchers write. “In this work, we investigate 18 MSPs newly found in the GC Omega Centauri and search for their X-ray counterparts using Chandra observations.”
Out of the 18 millisecond pulsars, 11 of them emit x-rays that Chandra can see. Five of them are spider pulsars near Omega Centauri’s center. They combined these with Chandra’s observations of 26 spider pulsars in 12 other globular clusters. Using this data, the pair of researchers examined empirical correlations between X-ray luminosities and the minimum masses of their companions.
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Not Getting Enough Data From Mars? Set Up A Solar System Pony Express
Getting data in from deep space can be difficult. Almost all of our missions that have flown into deep space use the Deep Space Network, a system of transmitters and receivers that already imposes constraints on the amount of data we can transfer from the far reaches of space. So a team led by Joshua Vander Hook, then at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and now at a start-up called Outrider.ai, came up with a way to dramatically enhance the throughput of the DSN. In so doing, they gave it a very catchy name – the Solar System Pony Express.
Dr. Vander Hook was initially supported by a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grant in 2021. The basic concept utilizes what is known as a “cycler” orbit, where a spacecraft repeatedly orbits between two bodies in the solar system using their gravity wells to swing around in sync with when their orbits pass each other.
In this case, the spacecraft would consist of a communications relay module that would collect high-throughput data from an observer module parked in orbit around the other body. The observer module would consistently download data from the missions operating in its local area and then, when a relay module gets close, would rapidly send all of that data to the cycling spacecraft. The cycler then returns to Earth, where another rapid download process begins, and the cycle repeats itself.
Fraser discusses some of the problems of communicating with deep space probes – especially those going to other stars.
That sounds like the Pony Express – a system in the 1800s whereby mail carriers would ride physical ponies (or horses) to deliver mail occasionally to remote outposts in the American West. In another homage to that mail carrier heritage, the team named the cycling relay satellites “data mules.”
Those data mules would have a long trip between Earth and their target destination. It might come as no surprise that in much of the literature surrounding the idea that the target destination was Mars. Buzz Aldrin, the most famous proponent of cycler orbits, suggested that cycler “castles” could effectively shuttle people and goods between Mars and Earth. But in this new configuration, instead of physical things, it would be more beneficial to ship data.
Another Depiction of how the observer / data mule interaction would go.
Credit – Marc Sanchez-Net et al.
Calculations described in a paper released last year estimate that with as little as six data mules, the network could provide a bandwidth of 1 petabyte a year from the surface of Mars while only requiring a minor allocation of time on the DSN. That would potentially allow some real-time high-definition video from the red planet, which would undoubtedly be attractive to many of the inhabitants of its nearest neighbor.
However, such high data rates come at a cost. In the case of the Solar System Pony Express, that cost is latency. The high throughput data transfer possible between the observer and a data mule, and then again from the data mule back to a receiving station on Earth, is only possible if they are in physical proximity to each other, as the network would use a type of high-throughput optical communications network. And since cycler orbits can take years, it would be years after the data was collected on the red planet that anyone could use it.
That is not a show stopper – indeed, many people would be okay with waiting for over a year for a high-definition video from Mars if that is the only way for them to see it. But it makes funding such a mission more difficult given the immediate feedback culture prevalent in many of today’s media. Give the authors credit, though – they recognize this limitation and, as all good scientists do, mention that it would be a good topic for further study.
For right now, that further study seems to be on hold. Dr. Vander Hook has moved on to other non-space-related efforts. While there has been some interest from researchers elsewhere, such as a paper from the University of Illinois, there’s currently no clear path forward for the project. But, there will always be a desire for more data transfer from farther out in the solar system. If the Pony Express is the most cost-effective way to get it at the beginning of our explorations, then don’t be surprised if this concept is resurrected sometime in the future.
Pascarella et al – Low-thrust trajectory optimization for the solar system pony
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A Protoplanetary Disc Has Been Found… in Another Galaxy!
Astronomers have imaged dozens of protoplanetary discs around Milky Way stars, seeing them at all stages of formation. Now, one of these discs has been found for the first time — excitingly — in another galaxy. The discovery was made using the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile along with the , which detected the telltale signature of a spinning disc around a massive star in the Large Magellanic Cloud, located 160,000 light-years away.
“When I first saw evidence for a rotating structure in the ALMA data I could not believe that we had detected the first extragalactic accretion disc, it was a special moment,” said Anna McLeod, an associate professor at Durham University in the UK and lead author of the study published in Nature. “We know discs are vital to forming stars and planets in our galaxy, and here, for the first time, we’re seeing direct evidence for this in another galaxy.”
McLeod and her fellow researchers were doing a follow-up study on a system named HH 1177, which was located deep inside a gas cloud in the Large Magellanic Cloud LMC). In 2019, the researchers reported that in using the Very Large Telescope, they observed a jet emitted by a fledgling but massive star with a mass 12 times greater than our Sun. This was the first time such a jet has been observed in visible light outside the Milky Way, as they are usually obscured by their dusty surroundings. However, the relatively dust-free environment of the LMC allowed for HH 1177 to be observed at visible wavelengths. At nearly 33 light-years in length, it is one of the longest such jets ever observed.
This dazzling region of newly-forming stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) was captured by the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The relatively small amount of dust in the LMC and MUSE’s acute vision allowed intricate details of the region to be picked out in visible light. Credit: ESO, A McLeod et al.
“We discovered a jet being launched from this young massive star, and its presence is a signpost for ongoing disc accretion,” McLeod said in an ESO press release. But to confirm that such a disc was indeed present, the team needed to measure the movement of the dense gas around the star.
The gas motion indicated that there is a radial flow of material falling onto a central disk-like structure. In their new observations, the team found that the disk exhibits signs of Keplerian rotation – which is a disk of material that obey’s Kepler’s laws of motion due to the dominance of a massive body at its center. Their observations revealed that “the rotating toroid [was] feeding an accretion disk and thus the growth of the central star,” the McLeod and team wrote in their paper. “The system is in almost all aspects comparable to Milky Way high-mass YSOs (young stellar objects) accreting gas from a Keplerian disk.
As matter is pulled towards a growing star, it cannot fall directly onto it; instead, it flattens into a spinning disc around the star. Closer to the center, the disc rotates faster, and this difference in speed is the clear evidence to show astronomers an accretion disc is present.
“The frequency of light changes depending on how fast the gas emitting the light is moving towards or away from us,” said Jonathan Henshaw, a research fellow at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, and co-author of the study, in the ESO press release. “This is precisely the same phenomenon that occurs when the pitch of an ambulance siren changes as it passes you and the frequency of the sound goes from higher to lower.”
Massive stars like HH 1177 live fast and die hard. In the Milky Way, stars like this are challenging to observe because they are often clouded from view by the dusty material from which they form — which also obscures the disc that might be shaping around them.
“They form in heavily embedded regions full of gas and dust, such that the accretion phase typically occurs before the star has time to become exposed due to stellar feedback, whether internal or external,” the team wrote in their paper. “The primary reason for the lack of observations of extragalactic accretion disks around forming stars has been the limited spatial resolution of both ground- and space-based observatories.”
But the Large Magellanic Cloud is fundamentally different from because the stars that form there have a lower dust content than in the Milky
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