Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


NASA Astronomers Find Bizarre Planet-Mass Object Orbiting Neutron Star

Using NASA’s Swift and Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellites, astronomers have discovered one of the most bizarre planet-mass objects ever found.

The object’s minimum mass is only about 7 times the mass of Jupiter. But instead of orbiting a normal star, this low-mass body orbits a rapidly spinning pulsar. It orbits the pulsar every 54.7 minutes at an average distance of only about 230,000 miles (slightly less than the Earth-Moon distance).

In this artist depiction of the SWIFT J1756.9-2508 system, the foreground object is the planet-mass object. The pulsar, located at the upper right, is tidally distorting the companion into a teardrop-shaped object, and ripping gas from it. This material flows in a stream toward the pulsar and forms a disk around it. Eventually, enough gas builds up in the disk to produce an outburst bright enough to make the system visible from Earth. Click on image to enlarge. Credit: Aurore Simonnet/Sonoma State University

"This object is merely the skeleton of a star," says co-discoverer Craig Markwardt of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "The pulsar has eaten away the star’s outer envelope, and all the remains is its helium-rich core."

Hans Krimm of NASA Goddard discovered the system on June 7, when Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope picked up an outburst of X rays and gamma rays in the direction of the galactic center. The source was named SWIFT J1756.9-2508 for its sky coordinates in the constellation Sagittarius.

RXTE began observing SWIFT J1756.9 on June 13 with its Proportional Counter Array (PCA). After analyzing the PCA data, Markwardt realized that the object was pulsing in X rays 182.07 times per second, which told him that it was a rapidly spinning pulsar. These so-called millisecond pulsars are neutron stars that spin hundreds of times per second, faster than a kitchen blender. Normally, the spin rate of neutron stars slows down as they age, but much like we can pull a string to “spin up” a top, gas spiraling onto a neutron star from its companion can maintain or even increase its fast spin.

In the case of SWIFT J1756.9-2508, Markwardt detected subtle modulations in the X-ray timing data that revealed a low-mass companion tugging the pulsar toward and away from Earth. His calculations show that the companion has a minimum mass about 7 times that of Jupiter. Because we don’t know the orbital inclination of the system, the companion’s actual mass is unknown, but it is extremely unlikely to exceed 30 Jupiters.

MIT astronomers led by Deepto Chakrabarty also observed the system with RXTE, before it faded to invisibility on June 21. Chakrabarty’s group reached identical conclusions, and the two teams have coauthored a paper that has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The system is only the eighth millisecond pulsar that is observed to be accreting mass from a companion. Only one other such system has a pulsar companion with such a low mass. The companion in this system, XTE J1807-294, also has a minimum mass of about 7 Jupiters. "Given that we don’t know the exact mass of either companion, ours could be the smallest," says Krimm.

The system probably formed several billion years ago, when it consisted of a very massive star and a smaller star with perhaps 1 to 3 solar masses. The more massive star evolved quickly and exploded as a supernova, leaving behind the neutron star. The smaller star eventually started to puff up en route to becoming a red giant, and the two objects became embedded in the extended stellar envelope. This drained orbital energy, causing the two stars to draw ever nearer, while simultaneously ejecting the envelope.

Today, the two objects are so close to each other than the neutron star’s powerful gravity produces a tidal bulge on its companion, siphoning off gas that flows into a disk that surrounds the neutron star. The flow eventually becomes unstable and dumps large quantities of gas onto the neutron star, causing an outburst like the one observed in June.

Evolution models by Christopher Deloye of Northwestern University suggest that the low-mass companion is helium dominated. "Despite its extremely low mass, the companion isn’t considered a planet because of its formation," says Deloye. "It’s essentially a white dwarf that has been whittled down to a planetary mass."

After billions of years, little remains of the companion star, and it remains unclear whether it will survive. "It’s been taking a beating, but that’s part of nature," adds Krimm.

With an estimated distance of roughly 25,000 light-years, the system is normally too faint to be detected at any wavelength, and is only visible during an outburst. SWIFT J1756.9 has never been seen to erupt until this June, so as Markwardt points out, "We don't know how long it will slumber before it wakes up again."

Robert Naeye | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht DGIST develops 20 times faster biosensor
24.04.2017 | DGIST (Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology)

nachricht New quantum liquid crystals may play role in future of computers
21.04.2017 | California Institute of Technology

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

7th International Conference on Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaics in Freiburg on April 3-5, 2017

03.04.2017 | Event News

Latest News

DGIST develops 20 times faster biosensor

24.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Nanoimprinted hyperlens array: Paving the way for practical super-resolution imaging

24.04.2017 | Materials Sciences

Atomic-level motion may drive bacteria's ability to evade immune system defenses

24.04.2017 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>