Penn State

Watching the stars, advanced Penn State telescope offers spectacular show

These images contain X-ray evidence from Chandra that a clump of stellar material has been jettisoned away from a double star system at incredibly high speeds.
These images contain X-ray evidence from Chandra that a clump of stellar material has been jettisoned away from a double star system at incredibly high speeds. Illustration provided

On Tuesday, NASA released photos of a stellar event that no one would know about if it weren’t for Penn State.

It all started with a unique telescope built by Gordon Garmire, Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The advanced CCD imaging spectrometer observes X-rays. According to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, another partner in the project operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, with ACIS at its core, can observe clouds of gas in space that are 5 million light years wide.

That is where Penn State astronomy and astrophysics professor George Pavlov comes in. Pavlov is the leader of the multi-unit research team that recently published the discovery.

Over the course of three years, Chandra picked up on an interesting phenomenon: a fast-moving pulsar that seemed to have “punched a hole in a disk of gas around its companion star and to have launched a fragment of the disk outward at a speed of about 40 million miles per hour.”

“These two objects are in an unusual cosmic arrangement and have given us a chance to witness something special,” Pavlov said. “As the pulsar moved through the disk, it appears that it punched a clump of material out and flung it away into space.”

When a clump of material in a gas cloud is large enough to be observed millions of miles away through space, it is a significant amount. According to Penn State, this now rapidly moving material “weighs about as much as all the water in the Earth’s oceans.”

The punch-out event happened in a double-star system that contains one star about 30 times as massive as the sun and another star that is a pulsar — an ultra-dense neutron star left behind after an even more massive star exploded as a supernova.

“After this clump of stellar material was knocked out, the pulsar’s wind appears to have accelerated it, almost as if it had a rocket attached,” said co-author Oleg Kargaltsev, of George Washington University.

Chandra’s observations reveal that the clump is moving away from the two-star system, B1259, at what had been 7 percent of the speed of light, but picked up speed, reaching about 15 percent of the speed of light.

Researchers said the X-ray emission that drew Chandra’s attention was “likely produced by a shock wave created as the pulsar’s wind rams into the clump of material. The ram pressure generated by this interaction also could accelerate the clump.”

Chandra will continue monitoring B1259 and its moving clump, with observations scheduled for later this year and in 2016.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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