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Supermagnetic Neutron Star Surprises Scientists, Forces Revision of Theories

Astronomers using radio telescopes from around the world have discovered a spinning neutron star with a superpowerful magnetic field -- called a magnetar -- doing things no magnetar has been seen to do before. The strange behavior has forced them to scrap previous theories about radio pulsars and promises to give new insights on the physics behind these extreme objects.

Artist's Conception of Magnetar With Radio Beams
Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Image and Animation Files

Magnetar Graphic (above image, JPEG, 32K)

Animation With Sound From GBT Detection of XTE J1810-197 (8.6M)

Animation With Sound From GBT Detection of XTE J1810-197 (Full Size, 29M)

The magnetar, approximately 10,000 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, is emitting powerful, regularly-timed pulses of radio waves just like radio pulsars, which are neutron stars with far less intense magnetic fields. Usually, magnetars are visible only in X-rays and sometimes very weakly in optical and infrared light.

"No one has ever found radio pulses coming from a magnetar before. We thought that magnetars didn't do this," said Fernando Camilo of Columbia University. "This object is going to teach us new things about magnetar physics that we would never have learned otherwise," Camilo added.

Neutron stars are the remnants of massive stars that have exploded as supernovae. Containing more mass than the Sun, they are compressed to a diameter of only about 15 miles, making them as dense as atomic nuclei. Ordinary pulsars are neutron stars that emit "lighthouse beams" of radio waves along the poles of their magnetic fields. As the star spins, the beam of radio waves is flung around, and when it passes the direction of Earth, astronomers can detect it with radio telescopes.

Scientists have found about 1700 pulsars since their first discovery in 1967. While pulsars have strong magnetic fields, about a dozen neutron stars have been dubbed magnetars because their magnetic fields are 100-1,000 times stronger than those of typical pulsars. It is the decay of those incredibly strong fields that powers their strange X-ray emission.

"The magnetic field from a magnetar would make an aircraft carrier spin around and point north quicker than a compass needle moves on Earth," said David Helfand, of Columbia University. A magnetar's field is 1,000 trillion times stronger than Earth's, Helfand pointed out.

The new object -- named XTE J1810-197 -- was first discovered by NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer when it emitted a strong burst of X-rays in 2003. While the X-rays were fading in 2004, Jules Halpern of Columbia University and collaborators identified the magnetar as a radio-wave emitter using the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico. Any radio emission is highly unusual for a magnetar.

Because magnetars had not been seen to regularly emit radio waves, the scientists presumed that the radio emission was caused by a cloud of particles thrown off the neutron star at the time of its X-ray outburst, an idea they soon would realize was wrong.

With knowledge that the magnetar emitted some form of radio waves, Camilo and his colleagues observed it with the Parkes radio telescope in Australia in March and immediately detected astonishingly strong radio pulsations every 5.5 seconds, corresponding to the previously-determined rotation rate of the neutron star.

As they continued to observe XTE J1810-197, the scientists got more surprises. Whereas most pulsars become weaker at higher radio frequencies, XTE J1810-197 does not, remaining a strong emitter at frequencies up to 140 GHz, the highest frequency ever detected from a radio pulsar. In addition, unlike normal pulsars, the object's radio emission fluctuates in strength from day to day, and the shape of the pulsations changes as well. These variations likely indicate that the magnetic fields around the pulsar are changing as well.

What's causing this behavior? At the moment, the scientists believe that the magnetar's intense magnetic field is twisting, causing changes in the locations where huge electric currents flow along the magnetic-field lines. These currents likely generate the radio pulsations.

"To solve this mystery, we'll continue monitoring this crazy object with as many telescopes as we can get our hands on and as often as possible. Hopefully, seeing all these changes with time will give us a deeper understanding of what is really going on in this very extreme environment," said team member Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Because they expect that XTE J1810-197 will fade at all wavelengths, including the radio, the scientists also have observed it with the NSF's Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope and Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), Parkes and the Australia Telescope Compact Array in Australia, the IRAM telescope in Spain, and the Nancay Observatory in France. John Reynolds and John Sakissian of Parkes Observatory, Neil Zimmerman of Columbia University and Juan Penalver and Aris Karastergiou of IRAM also are members of the research team. The scientists reported their initial findings in the August 24 issue of the scientific journal Nature.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Modified on Monday, 21-Aug-2006 08:10:48 EDT