NASA this week released footage that shows exactly what a jet of particles shooting out from around a pulsar looks like. Astronomers say the new research could provide new insight into these super-dense objects.
The video features the Vela pulsar, which is a neutron star that formed after the collapse of a massive star. The star is around 1,000 light-years from earth, is only 12 miles in diameter, and makes a rotation every 89 milliseconds. As the object spins faster than a helicopter roter, charged particles swirl around its rotation axis at around 70% the speed of light. The images seen in the video come from observations made using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.
"We think the Vela pulsar is like a rotating garden sprinkler - except with the water blasting out at over half the speed of light," said Martin Durant of the University of Toronto, the lead author of a new paper on the Vela pulsar published today in The Astrophysical Journal.
Durant and his colleagues observed that the pulsar could be precessing, or wobbling (like a top) as it spins. If confirmed, it would be the first time such a neutron star has been found. The precession, say researchers, could be related to minor distortions in the shape of the star, which might no longer be a perfect sphere due to its fast rotation and the interaction of its superfluid core with its crust.
"The deviation from a perfect sphere may only be equivalent to about one part in 100 million," said Oleg Kargaltsev co-author of the research and an astronomer at George Washington University. "Neutron stars are so dense that even a tiny distortion like this would have a big effect."
(Image courtesy NASA/CXC/Univ of Toronto/M.Durant et al/DSS/Davide De Martin)