From AAS NOVA: “How (S)low Can You Go:: Pulsar Edition”

AASNOVA

From AAS NOVA

9.16.22
Haley Wahl

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An artist’s impression of an accreting neutron star. [Dana Berry/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center]

Pulsars are one of the most complex and mysterious objects in the universe; astronomers thought they had an answer to how and why pulsars lose energy and spin slower over time…but recent discoveries have made them rethink their current theories.

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An example of a pulsar in a supernova remnant; the Crab pulsar emits energy that lights up the Crab Nebula, both of which were formed in a supernova that occurred in the year 1054. [J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)/NASA/ESA]

A Lack of Long-Period Pulsars

Deep inside the gas and dust of some supernova remnants, you’ll find a pulsar: a neutron star with a magnetic fields 100 million times Earth’s and a density so high that a teaspoon of matter would weigh as much as Mount Everest.

Pulsars emit radio radiation and rotate rapidly; their spin periods generally fall between 2 milliseconds and 12 seconds. Puzzled by the lack of pulsars with rotation periods longer than 12 seconds, some astronomers have hypothesized that pulsars can no longer emit radio radiation when their rotation periods exceed a certain limit. Other researchers believe that our observing methods are biased toward pulsars with shorter periods.

However, recent discoveries of long-period pulsars with spin periods of 14 seconds, 23 seconds, and 76 seconds (and also a radio transient with a period of 1,091 seconds) have challenged these ideas and made astronomers rethink their models. How were these pulsars with long spin periods formed? A team led by Michele Ronchi at Spain’s Institute of Space Sciences and the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia has proposed that it may have something to do with accretion from their parent supernovae.

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The period and age of pulsars plotted for different initial magnetic field strengths and supernova disk fallback rates. [Ronchi et al. 2022]

The Low-Down on the Slow-Down

After their births in supernovae explosions, pulsars “spin down” over time as they lose energy through magnetic dipole radiation and their magnetic fields decay. However, it’s not clear that these processes alone can account for the few pulsars we see with very long spin periods. The team postulates that the long rotation periods seen in these pulsars might have been caused by material from the supernova falling back onto the neutron star and forming a disk, which will affect the spin rate of the pulsar. This would happen soon after a neutron star’s formation, and the amount of mass and the accretion rate would depend on the progenitor star’s mass and the dynamics of the supernova.

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An example of the time evolution of the period of a pulsar. The two shaded boxes represent different phases of the accretion process. [Adapted from Ronchi et al. 2022]

Age Affects Accretion

The team performed simulations to understand how the spin period of a pulsar evolves over time, varying the initial magnetic field of the pulsar and the accretion rate to see if periods as long as 76 seconds are obtainable. They found that for newborn neutron stars with magnetic fields on the order of 1014–1015 G and moderate accretion rates, young long-period pulsars are possible. In neutron stars with lower initial magnetic fields, on the order of 1012 G, accretion from a fallback disk, if it is present, would have little effect. Therefore, the spin-down would be caused by magnetic dipole radiation alone, and the resulting pulsar’s period would be no longer than ~12 seconds.

Studying the mechanisms that lead to long-period pulsars could also help us understand other periodic transient events, like fast radio bursts. New radio surveys with powerful instruments such as the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) and MeerKAT may find more of these long-period objects and put the team’s theories to the test.

Citation

Long-period Pulsars as Possible Outcomes of Supernova Fallback Accretion, Michele Ronchi et al 2022 ApJ 934 184.
https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-4357/ac7cec/pdf

See the full article here .


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The mission of the American Astronomical Society is to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the Universe.

The Society, through its publications, disseminates and archives the results of astronomical research. The Society also communicates and explains our understanding of the universe to the public.
The Society facilitates and strengthens the interactions among members through professional meetings and other means. The Society supports member divisions representing specialized research and astronomical interests.
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The Society, through its members, trains, mentors and supports the next generation of astronomers. The Society supports and promotes increased participation of historically underrepresented groups in astronomy.
The Society assists its members to develop their skills in the fields of education and public outreach at all levels. The Society promotes broad interest in astronomy, which enhances science literacy and leads many to careers in science and engineering.

Adopted June 7, 2009

The society was founded in 1899 through the efforts of George Ellery Hale. The constitution of the group was written by Hale, George Comstock, Edward Morley, Simon Newcomb and Edward Charles Pickering. These men, plus four others, were the first Executive Council of the society; Newcomb was the first president. The initial membership was 114. The AAS name of the society was not finally decided until 1915, previously it was the “Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America”. One proposed name that preceded this interim name was “American Astrophysical Society”.

The AAS today has over 7,000 members and six divisions – the Division for Planetary Sciences (1968); the Division on Dynamical Astronomy (1969); the High Energy Astrophysics Division (1969); the Solar Physics Division (1969); the Historical Astronomy Division (1980); and the Laboratory Astrophysics Division (2012). The membership includes physicists, mathematicians, geologists, engineers and others whose research interests lie within the broad spectrum of subjects now comprising contemporary astronomy.

In 2019 three AAS members were selected into the tenth anniversary class of TED Fellows.

The AAS established the AAS Fellows program in 2019 to “confer recognition upon AAS members for achievement and extraordinary service to the field of astronomy and the American Astronomical Society.” The inaugural class was designated by the AAS Board of Trustees and includes an initial group of 232 Legacy Fellows.