Goddard Space Flight Center
Nov. 12, 2015
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
Explore Fermi’s discovery of the first gamma-ray pulsar detected in a galaxy other than our own. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
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The pulsar lies in the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy that orbits our Milky Way and is located 163,000 light-years away.
This first light image of the TRAPPIST national telescope at La Silla shows the Tarantula Nebula, located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) — one of the galaxies closest to us. Also known as 30 Doradus or NGC 2070, the nebula owes its name to the arrangement of bright patches that somewhat resembles the legs of a tarantula. Taking the name of one of the biggest spiders on Earth is very fitting in view of the gigantic proportions of this celestial nebula — it measures nearly 1000 light-years across! Its proximity, the favourable inclination of the LMC, and the absence of intervening dust make this nebula one of the best laboratories to help understand the formation of massive stars better. The image was made from data obtained through three filters (B, V and R) and the field of view is about 20 arcminutes across.
The Tarantula Nebula is the largest, most active and most complex star-formation region in our galactic neighborhood. It was identified as a bright source of gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light, early in the Fermi mission. Astronomers initially attributed this glow to collisions of subatomic particles accelerated in the shock waves produced by supernova explosions.
“It’s now clear that a single pulsar, PSR J0540-6919, is responsible for roughly half of the gamma-ray brightness we originally thought came from the nebula,” said lead scientist Pierrick Martin, an astrophysicist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse, France. “That is a genuine surprise.”
NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has detected the first extragalactic gamma-ray pulsar, PSR J0540-6919, near the Tarantula Nebula (top center) star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy that orbits our own Milky Way. Fermi detects a second pulsar (right) as well but not its pulses. PSR J0540-6919 now holds the record as the highest-luminosity gamma-ray pulsar. The angular distance between the pulsars corresponds to about half the apparent size of a full moon. Background: An image of the Tarantula Nebula and its surroundings in visible light. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; background: ESO/R. Fosbury (ST-ECF)
A gamma-ray view of the same region shown above in visible wavelengths. Lighter colors indicate greater numbers of gamma rays with energies between 2 and 200 billion electron volts. For comparison, visible light ranges between 2 and 3 electron volts. The two pulsars, PSR J0540−6919 (left) and PSR J0537−6910, clearly stand out. Credits: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
When a massive star explodes as a supernova, the star’s core may survive as a neutron star, where the mass of half a million Earths is crushed into a magnetized ball no larger than Washington, D.C. A young isolated neutron star spins tens of times each second, and its rapidly spinning magnetic field powers beams of radio waves, visible light, X-rays and gamma rays. If the beams sweep past Earth, astronomers observe a regular pulse of emission and the object is classified as a pulsar.
The Tarantula Nebula was known to host two pulsars, PSR J0540-6919 (J0540 for short) and PSR J0537−6910 (J0537), which were discovered with the help of NASA’s Einstein and Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellites, respectively. J0540 spins just under 20 times a second, while J0537 whirls at nearly 62 times a second — the fastest-known rotation period for a young pulsar.
Nevertheless, it took more than six years of observations by Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT), as well as a complete reanalysis of all LAT data in a process called Pass 8, to detect gamma-ray pulsations from J0540. The Fermi data establish upper limits for gamma-ray pulses from J0537 but do not yet detect them.
Martin and his colleagues present these findings in a paper to be published in the Nov. 13 edition of the journal Science.
“The gamma-ray pulses from J0540 have 20 times the intensity of the previous record-holder, the pulsar in the famous Crab Nebula, yet they have roughly similar levels of radio, optical and X-ray emission,” said coauthor Lucas Guillemot, at the Laboratory for Physics and Chemistry of Environment and Space, operated by CNRS and the University of Orléans in France.
This is a mosaic image, one of the largest ever taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope of the Crab Nebula, a six-light-year-wide expanding remnant of a star’s supernova explosion. Japanese and Chinese astronomers recorded this violent event nearly 1,000 years ago in 1054, as did, almost certainly, Native Americans. The orange filaments are the tattered remains of the star and consist mostly of hydrogen. The rapidly spinning neutron star embedded in the center of the nebula is the dynamo powering the nebula’s eerie interior bluish glow. The blue light comes from electrons whirling at nearly the speed of light around magnetic field lines from the neutron star. The neutron star, like a lighthouse, ejects twin beams of radiation that appear to pulse 30 times a second due to the neutron star’s rotation. A neutron star is the crushed ultra-dense core of the exploded star. The Crab Nebula derived its name from its appearance in a drawing made by Irish astronomer Lord Rosse in 1844, using a 36-inch telescope. When viewed by Hubble, as well as by large ground-based telescopes such as the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, the Crab Nebula takes on a more detailed appearance that yields clues into the spectacular demise of a star, 6,500 light-years away. The newly composed image was assembled from 24 individual Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 exposures taken in October 1999, January 2000, and December 2000. The colors in the image indicate the different elements that were expelled during the explosion. Blue in the filaments in the outer part of the nebula represents neutral oxygen, green is singly-ionized sulfur, and red indicates doubly-ionized oxygen.
“Accounting for these differences will guide us to a better understanding of the extreme physics at work in young pulsars.”
J0540 is a rare find, with an age of roughly 1,700 years, about twice that of the Crab Nebula pulsar. By contrast, most of the more than 2,500 known pulsars are from 10,000 to hundreds of millions of years old.
Despite J0540’s luminosity, too few gamma rays reach the LAT to detect pulsations without knowing the period in advance. This information comes from a long-term X-ray monitoring campaign using RXTE, which recorded both pulsars from the start of the Fermi mission to the end of 2011, when RXTE operations ceased.
“This campaign began as a search for a pulsar created by SN 1987A, the closest supernova seen since the invention of the telescope,” said co-author Francis Marshall, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “That search failed, but it discovered J0537.”
Prior to the launch of Fermi in 2008, only seven gamma-ray pulsars were known. To date, the mission has found more than 160.
NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy and with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.
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