"We are dealing with an object that has been hibernating for decades before entering a brief period of activity", explains Alberto J. Castro-Tirado, lead author of a paper in this week's issue of Nature.
The most likely candidate for this mystery object is a 'magnetar' located in our own Milky Way galaxy, about 15 000 light-years away towards the constellation of Vulpecula, the Fox. Magnetars are young neutron stars with an ultra-strong magnetic field a billion billion times stronger than that of the Earth. “A magnetar would wipe the information from all credit cards on Earth from a distance halfway to the Moon,” says co-author Antonio de Ugarte Postigo. "Magnetars remain quiescent for decades. It is likely that there is a considerable population in the Milky Way, although only about a dozen have been identified."
Some scientists have noted that magnetars should be evolving towards a pleasant retirement as their magnetic fields decay, but no suitable source had been identified up to now as evidence for this evolutionary scheme. The newly discovered object, known as SWIFT J195509+261406 and showing up initially as a gamma-ray burst (GRB 070610), is the first candidate. The magnetar hypothesis for this object is reinforced by another analysis, based on another set of data, appearing in the same issue of Nature.Notes
Neutron stars is the bare, condensed remain of a massive star which started its life with between eight and fifteen times the mass of the Sun, but then expelled its outer layers following a supernova explosion. Such stars are only around 20 kilometres in diameter, yet are more massive than the Sun. Magnetars are neutron stars with magnetic fields hundreds of times more intense than the average neutron star fields. The energy release during one flare in the course of a period of activity can amount to the energy released by the Sun in 10 000 years.
Henri Boffin | alfa
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