"The compact star at the center of this famous supernova remnant has been an enigma since its discovery," said Wynn Ho of the University of Southampton and lead author of a paper that appears in the latest issue of Nature. "Now we finally understand that it can be produced by a hot neutron star with a carbon atmosphere."
By analyzing Chandra's X-ray spectrum – akin to a fingerprint of energy – and applying it to theoretical models, Ho and his colleague Craig Heinke, from the University of Alberta, determined that the neutron star in Cassiopeia A, or Cas A for short, has an ultra-thin coating of carbon. This is the first time the composition of an atmosphere of an isolated neutron star has been confirmed.
The Chandra "First Light" image of Cas A in 1999 revealed a previously undetected point-like source of X-rays at the center. This object was presumed to be a neutron star, the typical remnant of an exploded star, but researchers were unable to understand its properties. Defying astronomers’ expectations, this object did not show any X-ray or radio pulsations or any signs of radio pulsar activity.
By applying a model of a neutron star with a carbon atmosphere to this object, Ho and Heinke found that the region emitting X-rays would uniformly cover a typical neutron star. This would explain the lack of X-ray pulsations because -- like a lightbulb that shines consistently in all directions -- this neutron star would be unlikely to display any changes in its intensity as it rotates.
Scientists previously have used a neutron star model with a hydrogen atmosphere giving a much smaller emission area, corresponding to a hot spot on a typical neutron star, which should produce X-ray pulsations as it rotates. Interpreting the hydrogen atmosphere model without pulsations would require a tiny size, consistent only with exotic stars made of strange quark matter.
"Our carbon veil solves one of the big questions about the neutron star in Cas A," said Craig Heinke. "People have been willing to consider some weird explanations, so it's a relief to discover a less peculiar solution."
Unlike most astronomical objects, neutron stars are small enough to understand on a human scale. For example, neutron stars typically have a diameter of about 14 miles, only slightly longer than a half-marathon. The atmosphere of a neutron star is on an even smaller scale. The researchers calculate that the carbon atmosphere is only about 4 inches thick, because it has been compressed by a surface gravity that is 100 billion times stronger than on Earth.
"For people who are used to hearing about immense sizes of things in space, it might be a surprise that we can study something so small," said Ho. "It's also funny to think that such a thin veil over this star played a key role in frustrating researchers."
In Earth’s time frame, the estimated age of the neutron star in Cas A is only several hundred years, making it about ten times younger than other neutron stars with detected surface emission. Therefore, the Cas A neutron star gives a unique window into the early life of a cooling neutron star.
The carbon itself comes from a combination of material that has fallen back after the supernova, and nuclear reactions on the hot surface of the neutron star which convert hydrogen and helium into carbon.
The X-ray spectrum and lack of pulsar activity suggest that the magnetic field on the surface of this neutron star is relatively weak. Similarly low magnetic fields are implied for several other young neutron stars by study of their weak X-ray pulsations. It is not known whether these neutron stars will have low magnetic fields for their entire lives, and never become radio pulsars, or whether processes in their interior will lead to the development of stronger magnetic fields as they age.
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.
Megan Watzke | Newswise Science News
From rocks in Colorado, evidence of a 'chaotic solar system'
23.02.2017 | University of Wisconsin-Madison
Prediction: More gas-giants will be found orbiting Sun-like stars
22.02.2017 | Carnegie Institution for Science
In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport
Cells need to repair damaged DNA in our genes to prevent the development of cancer and other diseases. Our cells therefore activate and send “repair-proteins”...
The Fraunhofer IWS Dresden and Technische Universität Dresden inaugurated their jointly operated Center for Additive Manufacturing Dresden (AMCD) with a festive ceremony on February 7, 2017. Scientists from various disciplines perform research on materials, additive manufacturing processes and innovative technologies, which build up components in a layer by layer process. This technology opens up new horizons for component design and combinations of functions. For example during fabrication, electrical conductors and sensors are already able to be additively manufactured into components. They provide information about stress conditions of a product during operation.
The 3D-printing technology, or additive manufacturing as it is often called, has long made the step out of scientific research laboratories into industrial...
Nature does amazing things with limited design materials. Grass, for example, can support its own weight, resist strong wind loads, and recover after being...
Nanometer-scale magnetic perforated grids could create new possibilities for computing. Together with international colleagues, scientists from the Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) have shown how a cobalt grid can be reliably programmed at room temperature. In addition they discovered that for every hole ("antidot") three magnetic states can be configured. The results have been published in the journal "Scientific Reports".
Physicist Dr. Rantej Bali from the HZDR, together with scientists from Singapore and Australia, designed a special grid structure in a thin layer of cobalt in...
13.02.2017 | Event News
10.02.2017 | Event News
09.02.2017 | Event News
24.02.2017 | Life Sciences
24.02.2017 | Life Sciences
24.02.2017 | Trade Fair News