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A Pulsar Is Sending Strange Unexplained Infrared Signals Into Deep Space

Sep 18, 2018 09:16 PM EDT
Pulsars, a particularly energetic one shown as the blue dot in the image, are still largely mysterious objects. Now, it's been shown to emit infrared signals across great distances.
(Photo : NASA | JPL-Caltech | SAO)

Scientists pick up bizarre infrared light emissions from a nearby pulsar, which is sending the signals over great distances across space.

Pulsar, which is a type of neutron star, are what's left of dead stars following a supernova.

Mysterious Infrared Signals

Neutron stars have been known to put out long-distance emissions. However, these newly detected signals mark the first time that a star has shown such an emission that's observed in only infrared light, according to a press release from Penn State.

The discovery could help astronomers gain a better understanding of mysterious neutron stars.

This particular neutron star, which is named RX J0806.4-4123, belongs to a group of seven X-ray pulsars that have been dubbed as "the Magnificent Seven." These seven neutron stars are known for their extreme temperatures, reportedly hotter than they should be considering their ages as well as available energy.

"We observed an extended area of infrared emissions around this neutron star — named RX J0806.4-4123 — the total size of which translates into about 200 astronomical units (or 2.5 times the orbit of Pluto around the Sun) at the assumed distance of the pulsar," Bettina Posselt, lead author of the paper and an associate research professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, explains in a statement.

Two Potential Explanations For The Emissions

In a study published in The Astrophysical Journal, researchers analyze the strange behavior of neutron star RX J0806 and suggest two possible explanations.

One theory is that the pulsar is enveloped in a disk that Posselt says would be made up of matter from the original star. The interaction between this disk and the neutron star could heated and slowed down the rotation over time.

Another potential cause of the infrared emissions are what's known as "pulsar wind nebula." Pulsar wind occurs when particles are accelerated in an electric field produced by a star's rapid rotation and a strong magnetic field.

According to Posselt, when the neutron star travels through an interstellar medium faster than the speed of sound, the interaction of the medium and the pulsar wind could create a shock. This shock goes on to radiate the synchrotron emission that could cause the signal that astronomers could spot in infrared light.

Pulsar wind nebulae are typically seen using X-rays, so if this is indeed an infrared-only phenomenon, it would mark an "unusual and exciting" milestone for astronomers who are dedicated to figuring out the mysteries of neutron stars.

The findings show that although X-rays are typically used to observe the phenomenon, infrared light could also yield significant observations that could shed more light on these elusive cosmic bodies.

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