Neutron Stars/X-ray Binaries

Chandra Studies Extraordinary Magnetar

Image of J1818
Magnetar J1818.0-1607
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of West Virginia/H. Blumer;
Infrared (Spitzer and Wise): NASA/JPL-CalTech/Spitzer

In 2020, astronomers added a new member to an exclusive family of exotic objects with the discovery of a magnetar. New observations from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory help support the idea that it is also a pulsar, meaning it emits regular pulses of light.

Magnetars are a type of neutron star, an incredibly dense object mainly made up of tightly packed neutrons, which forms from the collapsed core of a massive star during a supernova.

What sets magnetars apart from other neutron stars is that they also have the most powerful known magnetic fields in the Universe. For context, the strength of our planet's magnetic field has a value of about one Gauss, while a refrigerator magnet measures about 100 Gauss. Magnetars, on the other hand, have magnetic fields of about a million billion Gauss. If a magnetar was located a sixth of the way to the Moon (about 40,000 miles), it would wipe the data from all of the credit cards on Earth.

Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Critical for GPS, Seen in Distant Stars

The neutron star is shown in this artist's impression at the center of a disk of hot gas pulled away from its companion.
4U 1916-053, spectrum & illustration
Credit: Spectrum: NASA/CXC/University of Michigan/N. Trueba et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

What do Albert Einstein, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and a pair of stars 200,000 trillion miles from Earth have in common?

The answer is an effect from Einstein's General Theory of Relativity called the "gravitational redshift," where light is shifted to redder colors because of gravity. Using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have discovered the phenomenon in two stars orbiting each other in our galaxy about 29,000 light years (200,000 trillion miles) away from Earth. While these stars are very distant, gravitational redshifts have tangible impacts on modern life, as scientists and engineers must take them into account to enable accurate positions for GPS.

While scientists have found incontrovertible evidence of gravitational redshifts in our solar system, it has been challenging to observe them in more distant objects across space. The new Chandra results provide convincing evidence for gravitational redshift effects at play in a new cosmic setting.

NASA's Great Observatories Help Astronomers Build a 3D Visualization of Exploded Star

In the year 1054 AD, Chinese sky watchers witnessed the sudden appearance of a "new star" in the heavens, which they recorded as six times brighter than Venus, making it the brightest observed stellar event in recorded history. This "guest star," as they described it, was so bright that people saw it in the sky during the day for almost a month. Native Americans also recorded its mysterious appearance in petroglyphs.

Observing the nebula with the largest telescope of the time, Lord Rosse in 1844 named the object the "Crab" because of its tentacle-like structure. But it wasn't until the 1900s that astronomers realized the nebula was the surviving relic of the 1054 supernova, the explosion of a massive star.

Now, astronomers and visualization specialists from the NASA's Universe of Learning program have combined the visible, infrared, and X-ray vision of NASA's Great Observatories to create a three-dimensional representation of the dynamic Crab Nebula. Certain structures and processes, driven by the pulsar engine at the heart of the nebula, are best seen at particular wavelengths.

A Magnetar-powered X-ray Transient as the Aftermath of a Binary Neutron-star Merger

Yongquan Xue
Yongquan Xue

We are pleased to welcome Yongquan Xue, a professor at the Department of Astronomy, University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), as a guest blogger. He is an astrophysicist whose main research field is X-ray high-energy astrophysics, and has been significantly involved in the Chandra Deep Fields. Yongquan led the Nature paper that is the subject of our latest press release on the discovery of a magnetar-powered X-ray transient. Before joining USTC in 2012, he worked at Penn State University as a postdoc, after obtaining his astrophysics B.S. and M.S. degrees at Peking University, and Ph.D. degree at Purdue University, respectively.

A neutron star is the compact object formed after a supernova explosion occurring in the late evolutionary stage of a massive star, and it is one of the most mysterious objects in the universe. It is composed of almost all neutrons, and has some extreme physical properties such as ultra-high density and a super-strong magnetic field. It is an excellent natural laboratory for testing basic physical laws. However, up to now, our understanding about the basic properties of neutron stars (e.g., the equation of state, which describes the relation among pressure, density, etc.) is still relatively vague.

A New Signal for a Neutron Star Collision Discovered

Image of XT2
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Uni. of Science and Technology of China/Y. Xue et al; Optical: NASA/STScI

These images show the location of an event, discovered by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, that likely signals the merger of two neutron stars. A bright burst of X-rays in this source, dubbed XT2, could give astronomers fresh insight into how neutron stars — dense stellar objects packed mainly with neutrons — are built.

Chandra Serves up Cosmic Holiday Assortment

This is the season of celebrating, and the Chandra X-ray Center has prepared a platter of cosmic treats from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to enjoy. This selection represents different types of objects — ranging from relatively nearby exploded stars to extremely distant and massive clusters of galaxies — that emit X-rays detected by Chandra. Each image in this collection blends Chandra data with other telescopes, creating a colorful medley of light from our Universe.

Angle Matters: A New Perspective on Neutron Star Collisions Solves an Old Mystery

Eleonora Troja
Eleonora Troja

We are very pleased to welcome Eleonora Troja as our guest blogger. She is an associate research scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, with a joint appointment at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She divides her time between her research on colliding neutron stars, directing the Swift Guest Investigator Program, and her three-year-old daughter, Bianca.

A year ago, on October 16th 2017, an amazing discovery was announced. GW170817, a collision of two neutron stars seen through gravitational waves and light, had realized the perfect union of two worlds. At the press conference organized by the National Science Foundation, a journalist asked an important question to the panelists: “Hadn’t we seen similar events before?” In that moment my mind ran back to an unusual gamma-ray burst, GRB150101B, localized by NASA’s Swift satellite nearly three years earlier.

GRB150101B was a flash of gamma-ray radiation that lasted for less than a fraction of a second. It was one of the weakest explosions ever seen with Swift, yet it was very luminous in X-rays and for a very long time. This was so unusual that Swift scientists were not sure whether the burst was a gamma ray burst (GRB) or another type of weird explosion, and dubbed it with a dual name GRB 150101B / SwiftJ123205.1-1056. I asked that NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory observe this object and help us unravel the mystery of its nature. Chandra revealed that there were two sources of X-ray light, not resolved by the Swift observations. A bright X-ray source was located at the center of the galaxy, probably indicating the presence of a supermassive black hole. Next to it, Chandra discovered a weaker X-ray signal coming from GRB150101B. At the same position, telescopes caught a glow of visible light which quickly faded away.

Chandra Scouts Nearest Star System for Possible Hazards

A new study involving long-term monitoring of Alpha Centauri by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory indicates that any planets orbiting the two brightest stars are likely not being pummeled by large amounts of X-ray radiation from their host stars, as described in our press release. This is important for the viability of life in the nearest star system outside the Solar System. Chandra data from May 2nd, 2017 are seen in the pull-out, which is shown in context of a visible-light image taken from the ground of the Alpha Centauri system and its surroundings.

Alpha Centauri is a triple star system located just over four light years, or about 25 trillion miles, from Earth. While this is a large distance in terrestrial terms, it is three times closer than the next nearest Sun-like star.

The stars in the Alpha Centauri system include a pair called "A" and "B," (AB for short) which orbit relatively close to each other. Alpha Cen A is a near twin of our Sun in almost every way, including age, while Alpha Cen B is somewhat smaller and dimmer but still quite similar to the Sun. The third member, Alpha Cen C (also known as Proxima), is a much smaller red dwarf star that travels around the AB pair in a much larger orbit that takes it more than 10 thousand times farther from the AB pair than the Earth-Sun distance. Proxima currently holds the title of the nearest star to Earth, although AB is a very close second.

Two Neutron Stars + Gravitational Waves = A Black Hole

Dave Pooley
Dave Pooley

It is a pleasure to welcome Dave Pooley as a guest blogger. Dave led the black hole study that is the subject of our latest press release. He is an associate professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where he loves doing research with a cadre of amazing undergraduates on topics ranging from gravitational lensing to supermassive black holes to supernova explosions to exotic X-ray binaries to globular clusters. He lives in Austin with his wife, two (soon to be three) children, two cats, and one dog. When he’s not setting up train tracks, watching Daniel Tiger, or analyzing Chandra data, he enjoys cooking, woodworking, and all manner of whisky.

A colleague of mine at MIT once said that the minute the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) detects gravitational waves, it will be one of the most successful physics experiments ever performed, and the next minute, it will immediately become one of the most successful astronomical observatories ever operated.

He was exactly right. The direct detection of gravitational waves was a tremendous success for fundamental physics. We knew that gravitational radiation existed, but to directly detect it was huge. It was a triumph due to the meticulous and brilliant work of the hundreds of people who worked for years and years to make LIGO a success.

And immediately with that first detection, astronomers added gravitational waves to our tool belt of ways to study the universe. With just that first event, which was a merger of two black holes, we learned so much more about black holes than we previously knew. That, in turn, raised even more questions about these intriguing objects. Clearly, 60-solar-mass black holes exist. (That was news to us!) And you make them from 30-solar-mass black holes. (That was news to us too!) So 30-solar-mass black holes exist. (Even that was news to us, too!) But how do you make those? We astronomers have a few ideas, but we’re really not sure. We haven’t figured that out yet. Nature of course, already has.


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