Dec 16

First Signs of Weird Quantum Property of Empty Space?

Source: ESO Science Release eso1641

This artist’s view shows how the light coming from the surface of a strongly magnetic neutron star (left) becomes linearly polarised as it travels through the vacuum of space close to the star on its way to the observer on Earth (right). The polarisation of the observed light in the extremely strong magnetic field suggests that the empty space around the neutron star is subject to a quantum effect known as vacuum birefringence, a prediction of quantum electrodynamics (QED). This effect was predicted in the 1930s but has not been observed before. The magnetic and electric field directions of the light rays are shown by the red and blue lines. Model simulations by Roberto Taverna (University of Padua, Italy) and Denis Gonzalez Caniulef (UCL/MSSL, UK) show how these align along a preferred direction as the light passes through the region around the neutron star. As they become aligned the light becomes polarised, and this polarisation can be detected by sensitive instruments on Earth.
The polarisation of light emitted by a neutron star.
Image credit: ESO/L. Calçada

By studying the light emitted from an extraordinarily dense and strongly magnetised neutron star using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers may have found the first observational indications of a strange quantum effect, first predicted in the 1930s. The polarisation of the observed light suggests that the empty space around the neutron star is subject to a quantum effect known as vacuum birefringence.(read more)

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Jul 11

A Pulsar and its mysterious tail

Source: Chandra

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/IUSS/A.De Luca et al; Optical: DSS

A spinning neutron star is tied to a mysterious tail - or so it seems. Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have found that this pulsar, known as PSR J0357+3205 (or PSR J0357 for short), apparently has a long, X-ray bright tail streaming away from it.

This composite image shows Chandra data in blue and Digitized Sky Survey data in yellow. The position of the pulsar at the upper right end of the tail is seen by mousing over the image. The two bright sources lying near the lower left end of the tail are both thought to be unrelated background objects located outside our galaxy.

PSR J0357 was originally discovered by the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope in 2009. Astronomers calculate that the pulsar lies about 1,600 light years from Earth and is about half a million years old, which makes it roughly middle-aged for this type of object.

If the tail is at the same distance as the pulsar then it stretches for 4.2 light years in length. This would make it one of the the longest X-ray tails ever associated with a so-called "rotation-powered" pulsar, a class of pulsar that get its power from the energy lost as the rotation of the pulsar slows down. (Other types of pulsars include those driven by strong magnetic fields and still others that are powered by material falling onto the neutron star.)

The Chandra data indicate that the X-ray tail may be produced by emission from energetic particles in a pulsar wind, with the particles produced by the pulsar spiraling around magnetic field lines.

Other X-ray tails around pulsars have been interpreted as bow-shocks generated by the supersonic motion of pulsars through space, with the wind trailing behind as its particles are swept back by the pulsar's interaction with the interstellar gas it encounters.

However, this bow-shock interpretation may or may not be correct for PSR J0357, with several issues that need to be explained. For example, the Fermi data show that PSR J0357 is losing a very small amount of energy as its spin slows down with time. This energy loss is important, because it is converted into radiation and powering a particle wind from the pulsar.

This places limits on the amount of energy that particles in the wind can attain, and so might not account for the quantity of X-rays seen by Chandra in the tail.

Another challenge to this explanation is that other pulsars with bow-shocks show bright X-ray emission surrounding the pulsar, and this is not seen for PSR J0357. Also, the brightest portion of the tail is well away from the pulsar and this differs from what has been seen for other pulsars with bow-shocks.

Further observations with Chandra could help test this bow-shock interpretation. If the pulsar is seen moving in the opposite direction from that of the tail, this would support the bow-shock idea.

These results were published in the June 1st, 2011 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. The first author is Andrea De Luca of Institute of Advanced Study in Pavia, Italy (IUSS), the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN) in Rome, and the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Milano.

The co-authors are M. Marelli of INAF, Milano and the University of Insubria in Italy; R. Mignani of University College London, UK and University of Zielona Gora, Poland; P. Caraveo of INAF, Milano; W. Hummel of ESO, Germany; S. Collins and A. Shearer of National University of Ireland; P. Saz Parkinson of University of California at Santa Cruz; A. Belfiore of University of California at Santa Cruz and University of Pavia; and, G. Bignami of IUSS, Pavia and INAF, Milano.

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Jun 11

Neutron star bites off more than it can chew

Source: ESA News

ESA’s XMM-Newton space observatory has watched a faint star flare up at X-ray wavelengths to almost 10 000 times its normal brightness. Astronomers believe the outburst was caused by the star trying to eat a giant clump of matter.

The flare took place on a neutron star, the collapsed heart of a once much larger star. Now about 10 km in diameter, the neutron star is so dense that it generates a strong gravitational field.

The clump of matter was much larger than the neutron star and came from its enormous blue supergiant companion star.(read more)

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Apr 11

Breakthrough study confirms cause of short Gamma-Ray Bursts

Source: NASA News

Merger of two neutron stars recently simulated using a new supercomputer model.
Image credit: NASA/AEI/ZIB/M. Koppitz and L. Rezzolla

A new supercomputer simulation shows the collision of two neutron stars can naturally produce the magnetic structures thought to power the high-speed particle jets associated with short gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). The study provides the most detailed glimpse of the forces driving some of the universe's most energetic explosions.

The state-of-the-art simulation ran for nearly seven weeks on the Damiana computer cluster at the Albert Einstein Institute (AEI) in Potsdam, Germany. It traces events that unfold over 35 milliseconds - about three times faster than the blink of an eye.

GRBs are among the brightest events known, emitting as much energy in a few seconds as our entire galaxy does in a year. Most of this emission comes in the form of gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light. (read more)

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Feb 11

Cassiopeia A: NASA'S Chandra Finds Superfluid in Neutron Star's Core

Source: NASA /Chandra

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/xx; Optical: NASA/STScI; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

This composite image shows a beautiful X-ray and optical view of Cassiopeia A (Cas A), a supernova remnant located in our Galaxy about 11,000 light years away. These are the remains of a massive star that exploded about 330 years ago, as measured in Earth's time frame. X-rays from Chandra are shown in red, green and blue along with optical data from Hubble in gold.

At the center of the image is a neutron star, an ultra-dense star created by the supernova. Ten years of observations with Chandra have revealed a 4% decline in the temperature of this neutron star, an unexpectedly rapid cooling. Two new papers by independent research teams show that this cooling is likely caused by a neutron superfluid forming in its central regions, the first direct evidence for this bizarre state of matter in the core of a neutron star. (read more)

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