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Chandra observes observes runaway pulsar firing an enormous jet

An extraordinary jet trailing behind a runaway pulsar is seen in this composite image that contains data from Chandra (purple), radio data from the ACTA (green), and optical data from the 2MASS survey (red, green, and blue). The pulsar and its tail are found in the lower right of this image. Image Credit: NASA/CXC/ISDC

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has recorded images of a fast-moving pulsar escaping from a supernova remnant while trailing an enormous and unusual jet of high energy particles. The pulsar’s jet is the longest of any object in the Milky Way galaxy. A pulsar is a type of neutron star.  The pulsar observed by Chandra is known as the Lighthouse nebula or IGR  J11014-6103 and its bizarre behavior can like be traced back to its birth in the collapse and explosion of a massive star.

The pulsar, which was originally discovered  by the European Space Agency’s INTEGRAL probe, is located about 60 light-years from the center of supernova remnant MSH 11-61A in the constellation Carina. It is traveling at a speed between 2.5 million and 5 million miles per hour, making it one of the fastest pulsars ever observed.

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is a telescope specially designed to detect X-ray emission from very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and matter around black holes.  Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is a telescope specially designed to detect X-ray emission from very hot regions of the Universe such as exploded stars, clusters of galaxies, and matter around black holes. Image Credit: NASA

“We’ve never seen an object that moves this fast and also produces a jet,” said Lucia Pavan of the University of Geneva in Switzerland and lead author of a paper published Tuesday,in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. “By comparison, this jet is almost 10 times longer than the distance between the sun and our nearest star.”

The X-ray jet emitted by IGR J11014-6103 is extraordinary both for its great length and its distinctive corkscrew pattern which suggests that the pulsar is wobbling like a spinning top. The pulsar is also producing a pulsar wind nebula (PWN), a cocoon of high-energy particles that enshrouds and trails behind it like a comet’s tail. IGR J11014-6103’s pulsar wind nebula is unusual because it is almost perpendicular to the long jet.

“We can see  this pulsar is moving directly away from the center of the supernova remnant based on the shape and direction of the pulsar wind nebula,” said co-author Pol Bordas, from the University of Tuebingen in Germany. “The question is, why is the jet pointing off in this other direction?”

Normally, a pulsar’s spin axis and jets point in the same direction they are traveling, but this pulsar’s spin axis and direction of motion are nearly at at right angles.

“With the pulsar moving one way and the jet going another, this gives us clues that exotic physics can occur when some stars collapse,” said co-author Gerd Puehlhofer also of the University of Tuebingen.

One possible explanation would require an extremely fast rotation speed for the iron core of the the star that exploded. Such fast speeds are not commonly expected to be achievable. The supernova remnant that birthed  IGR J11014-6013 is elongated roughly in line with the direction of the jet. These features and the high speed of of the pulsar hint that jets may have been an important feature of the the supernova explosion that formed it.

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which was launched and deployed by Space Shuttle Columbia on July 23, 1999.  Photo Credit: NASA

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched and deployed by Space Shuttle Columbia on July 23, 1999. Photo Credit: NASA

 

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Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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