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Galaxy's Biggest Telescope Captures Most Precise Picture of Spinning Star

May 07, 2014 04:47 PM EDT

Scientists took advantage of the galaxy's biggest telescope and used it to capture the most precise picture to date of a small spinning neutron star.

The galaxy's biggest telescope, however, isn't a piece of equipement. Researchers were able to use the interstellar medium, the "empty" space between stars and galaxies that is made up of sparsely spread charged particles, as a giant lens to magnify and examine the radio wave emission from this rotating star.

The new technique is so precise, it is the equivalent of viewing the double-helix structure of our genes from the Moon.

"Compared to other objects in space, neutron stars are tiny - only tens of kilometers in diameter - so we need extremely high resolution to observe them and understand their physics," Jean-Pierre Macquart from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Perth said in a statement.

Neutron stars - or pulsars, as they're called when they also rotate - are what is left behind after a violent explosion from a supernova. They are one of the most fascinating objects in the universe, possibly because they are so dense. If a neutron star were a 14-ounce can of soup, it would also have to have the same mass as our Moon, John Millis, a professor of physics and astronomy at Anderson University, reported on redOrbit.com. Some also spin as fast as 1,000 times per second. But even more perplexing are their pulsating radio waves that they emit.

"More than 45 years since astronomers discovered pulsars, we still don't understand the mechanism by which they emit radio wave pulses," Macquart added.

Researchers utilized the distortions of these pulse signals as they passed through the turbulent interstellar medium to reconstruct a close in view of the pulsar from thousands of individual sub-images of the pulsar.

The previous record had a resolution of 50 microarcseconds, but this new technique yields a resolution of 50 picoarcseconds, or a million times more detail.

They realized the neutron star's emission region was much smaller than previously assumed and possibly much closer to the star's surface - an important detail in understanding radio wave emission.

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