Extraordinary scan of deep space reveals pulsar in amazing detail

24 May 2018

Image: Dr Mark A Garlick/Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics/University of Toronto

Equivalent to seeing a flea on the surface of Pluto from Earth, a team of astronomers has achieved an extraordinary observation of a pulsar.

Our ability to search the cosmos for the weird and wonderful reality of astrophysics has only increased as the years have progressed, and the latest breakthrough made by a team of astronomers in Canada has revealed something truly extraordinary.

In a paper published to Nature, the team from the University of Toronto and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics detailed findings on the highest-resolution observations in astronomical history by analysing two intense regions of radiation.

Future Human

Incredibly, despite being 6,500 light years away, the team was able to observe the regions individually, even though they are only 20km apart.

This amazing feat was achieved thanks to the rare geometry and characteristics of a pair of stars orbiting one another; one being a cool, lightweight star called a brown dwarf with a comet-like tail of gas, and the other being the most exotic of cosmic phenomena, a pulsar.

First discovered by Irish woman Jocelyn Bell Burnell, pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit beams of radiation from two hotspots on its surface, represented by the two intense regions discovered by the astronomers.

Meanwhile, the brown dwarf is roughly 2m km from the pulsar and is tidally locked with it, resulting in the brown dwarf being blasted with radiation, possibly spelling its demise.

Getting to understand FRBs

The gas being emitted from the brown dwarf has been crucial to this ability to analyse the pulsar.

“The gas is acting as like a magnifying glass right in front of the pulsar,” said Robert Main, lead author of the paper.

“We are essentially looking at the pulsar through a naturally occurring magnifier, which periodically allows us to see the two regions separately.”

Given its powerful effects on the brown dwarf, this particular type of pulsar is referred to as a ‘black widow’ pulsar.

This is because, just as a black widow spider eats its mate, it is thought that the pulsar, given the right conditions, could gradually erode gas from the dwarf star until the latter is consumed.

But, perhaps most interestingly for the astronomers, the pulsar could help us understand the nature of mysterious phenomena known as fast radio bursts (FRBs).

“Many observed properties of FRBs could be explained if they are being amplified by plasma lenses,” Main said.

“The properties of the amplified pulses we detected in our study show a remarkable similarity to the bursts from the repeating FRB, suggesting that the repeating FRB may be lensed by plasma in its host galaxy.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic