'Odd Couple' Binary Makes Dual Gamma-ray Flares

In December 2010, a pair of mismatched stars in the southern constellation Crux whisked past each other at a distance closer than Venus orbits the sun. The system possesses a so-far unique blend of a hot and massive star with a compact fast-spinning pulsar. The pair's closest encounters occur every 3.4 years and each is marked by a sharp increase in gamma rays, the most extreme form of light.

The unique combination of stars, the long wait between close approaches, and periods of intense gamma-ray emission make this system irresistible to astrophysicists. Now, a team using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope to observe the 2010 encounter reports that the system displayed fascinating and unanticipated activity.

"Even though we were waiting for this event, it still surprised us," said Aous Abdo, a Research Assistant Professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and a leader of the research team.

Few pairings in astronomy are as peculiar as high-mass binaries, where a hot blue-white star many times the sun's mass and temperature is joined by a compact companion no bigger than Earth -- and likely much smaller. Depending on the system, this companion may be a burned-out star known as a white dwarf, a city-sized remnant called a neutron star (also known as a pulsar) or, most exotically, a black hole.

Just four of these "odd couple" binaries were known to produce gamma rays, but in only one of them did astronomers know the nature of the compact object. That binary consists of a pulsar designated PSR B1259-63 and a 10th-magnitude Be-type star known as LS 2883. The pair lies 8,000 light-years away.

The pulsar is a fast-spinning neutron star with a strong magnetic field. This combination powers a lighthouse-like beam of energy, which astronomers can easily locate if the beam happens to sweep toward Earth. The beam from PSR B1259-63 was discovered in 1989 by the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. The neutron star is about the size of Washington, D.C., weighs about twice the sun's mass, and spins almost 21 times a second.

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