Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

'Missing Link': Revealing Fast-spinning Pulsar Mysteries

Date:
May 22, 2009
Source:
National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Summary:
Changes observed in a unique-double-star system are giving astronomers a glimpse of what they believe is the mechanism for "spinning up" the superfast neutron stars known as millisecond pulsars.

Rendering of material from distended "normal" star on right, streaming onto accretion disk (white and blue) surrounding neutron star, left.
Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Astronomers have discovered a unique double-star system that represents a "missing link" stage in what they believe is the birth process of the most rapidly-spinning stars in the Universe -- millisecond pulsars.

"We've thought for some time that we knew how these pulsars get 'spun up' to rotate so swiftly, and this system looks like it's showing us the process in action," said Anne Archibald, of McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Pulsars are superdense neutron stars, the remnants left after massive stars have exploded as supernovae. Their powerful magnetic fields generate lighthouse-like beams of light and radio waves that sweep around as the star rotates. Most rotate a few to tens of times a second, slowing down over thousands of years.

However, some, dubbed millisecond pulsars, rotate hundreds of times a second. Astronomers believe the fast rotation is caused by a companion star dumping material onto the neutron star and spinning it up. The material from the companion would form a flat, spinning disk around the neutron star, and during this period, the radio waves characteristic of a pulsar would not be seen coming from the system. As the amount of matter falling onto the neutron star decreased and stopped, the radio waves could emerge, and the object would be recognized as a pulsar.

This sequence of events is apparently what happened with a binary-star system some 4000 light-years from Earth. The millisecond pulsar in this system, called J1023, was discovered by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia in 2007 in a survey led by astronomers at West Virginia University and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

The astronomers then found that the object had been detected by NSF's Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope during a large sky survey in 1998, and had been observed in visible light by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in 1999, revealing a Sun-like star.

When observed again in 2000, the object had changed dramatically, showing evidence for a rotating disk of material, called an accretion disk, surrounding the neutron star. By May of 2002, the evidence for this disk had disappeared.

"This strange behavior puzzled astronomers, and there were several different theories for what the object could be," said Ingrid Stairs of the University of British Columbia, who has been visiting the Australia Telescope National Facility and Swinburne University this year.

The 2007 GBT observations showed that the object is a millisecond pulsar, spinning 592 times per second.

"No other millisecond pulsar has ever shown evidence for an accretion disk," Archibald said. "We know that another type of binary-star system, called a low-mass X-ray binary (LMXB), also contains a fast-spinning neutron star and an accretion disk, but these don't emit radio waves. We've thought that LMXBs probably are in the process of getting spun up, and will later emit radio waves as a pulsar. This object appears to be the 'missing link' connecting the two types of systems," she explained.

"It appears this thing has flipped from looking like an LMXB to looking like a pulsar, as it experienced an episode during which material pulled from the companion star formed an accretion disk around the neutron star. Later, that mass transfer stopped, the disk disappeared, and the pulsar emerged," said Scott Ransom of the NRAO.

The scientists have studied J1023 in detail with the GBT, with the Westerbork radio telescope in the Netherlands, with the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and with the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. Their results indicate that the neutron star's companion has less than half the Sun's mass, and orbits the neutron star once every four hours and 45 minutes.

"This system gives us an unparalled 'cosmic laboratory' for studying how millisecond pulsars evolve," Stairs said. Maura McLaughlin, of West Virginia University, agrees: "Future observations of this system at radio and other wavelengths are sure to hold many surprises."

Archibald, Ransom, Stairs and McLaughlin are members of an international scientific team with representatives from McGill University, the University of British Columbia, the NRAO, West Virginia University, and others. The scientists announced their discovery in the May 21 online issue of the journal Science.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Archibald et al. A Radio Pulsar/X-ray Binary Link. Science, 2009; DOI: 10.1126/science.1172740

Cite This Page:

National Radio Astronomy Observatory. "'Missing Link': Revealing Fast-spinning Pulsar Mysteries." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 May 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090521141159.htm>.
National Radio Astronomy Observatory. (2009, May 22). 'Missing Link': Revealing Fast-spinning Pulsar Mysteries. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 23, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090521141159.htm
National Radio Astronomy Observatory. "'Missing Link': Revealing Fast-spinning Pulsar Mysteries." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090521141159.htm (accessed October 23, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Russian Cosmonauts Kick Off Final Spacewalk of 2014

Russian Cosmonauts Kick Off Final Spacewalk of 2014

Reuters - US Online Video (Oct. 22, 2014) — Russian cosmonauts Maxim Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev step outside the International Space Station to perform work on the exterior of the station's Russian module. Rough Cut (no reporter narration) Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Comet Siding Spring Grazes Mars' Atmosphere

Comet Siding Spring Grazes Mars' Atmosphere

Newsy (Oct. 19, 2014) — A comet from the farthest reaches of the solar system passed extremely close to Mars this weekend, giving astronomers a rare opportunity to study it. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Latin America Launches Communications Satellite

Latin America Launches Communications Satellite

AFP (Oct. 17, 2014) — Argentina launches a home-built satellite, a first for Latin America. It will ride a French-made Ariane 5 rocket into orbit, and will provide cell phone, digital TV, Internet and data services to the lower half of South America. Duration: 00:41 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
This Week @ NASA, October 17, 2014

This Week @ NASA, October 17, 2014

NASA (Oct. 17, 2014) — Power spacewalk, MAVEN’s “First Light”, Hubble finds extremely distant galaxy and more... Video provided by NASA
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins