Faster than a Speeding Pulsar

A pulsar located 6,500 light years from Earth, PSR J0002+6216, has been spotted traveling over 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) per second away from its birthplace. A trail of shocked particles and magnetic energy, 13 light years long, traces back to the supernova explosion which created the body, dubbed CTB 1.

Pulsars are rapidly-spinning super-dense neutron stars left over from supernovas caused by the deaths of massive stars. As they rotate, these bodies emit powerful jets of gamma rays, which can occasionally be seen from Earth. The pulsar at the center of this study rotates 8.7 times a second.

“This pulsar has completely escaped the remnant of debris from the supernova explosion. It’s very rare for a pulsar to get enough of a kick for us to see this,” said Frank Schinzel, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

The ghostly shell of the supernova remnant CTB 1, seen here in a composite photo. Image credit: Composite by Jayanne English, University of Manitoba, using data from NRAO/F. Schinzel et al., DRAO/Canadian Galactic Plane Survey and NASA/IRAS

The speeding pulsar was found by amateur scientists, utilizing the Einstein at Home software, searching for these bizarre objects. This project utilizes the idle time of home computers to analyze data from the Fermi Gamma-ray space telescope. Following 10,000 years of collective computing time, the network has discovered 23 pulsars, including J0002, found in 2017.

Typically, pulsars travel around 240 kilometers (150 miles) per second from where they were formed. Found in the constellation of Cassiopeia, the speedy J0002 is traveling at nearly five times that speed — faster than 99 percent of pulsars ever seen. This is fast enough to travel the distance between the Earth and Moon in just six minutes. This discovery, showing the tremendous velocity at which J0002 is racing away from CTB 1, helps astronomers learn about how these bodies can be ejected following the powerful events.

The Fermi space telescope, launched a decade ago, provided a wealth of information assisting astronomers in detailing the properties of J0002.

“The longer the data set, the more powerful the pulsar timing technique is. Fermi’s lovely 10-year data set is essentially what made this measurement possible,” said Matthew Kerr of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

The newly-discovered pulsar traveled 53 light years away from its birthplace, CTB 1, 10,000 years after the supernova. After just 5,000 years, the body overtook the shell created by the explosion.

“The explosion debris in the supernova remnant originally expanded faster than the pulsar’s motion. However, the debris was slowed by its encounter with the tenuous material in interstellar space, so the pulsar was able to catch up and overtake it,” said Dale Frail, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

The rapid motion of the pulsar creates shock waves, producing the tail seen at radio wavelengths by astronomers at the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico. Still, astronomers are puzzled at what processes may have been responsible for the rapid motion of the pulsar.

Given its tremendous velocity, J0002 will, one day, escape from the Milky Way, and wander freely between the galaxies.




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