Friday, July 29, 2011

Pin the tail on the pulsar, 07.18.11

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory has seen something very interesting in recent months. In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, several astronomers note how they have witnessed a tail of sorts that appears to be spreading out from a pulsar. The pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star, lovingly dubbed PSR J0357+3205.
The blue in this composite image is the Chandra x-ray data, and the yellow is a digitized sky survey. The pulsar is actually at the upper right-hand edge of the “tail,” which is part of the reason why astronomers are left scratching their heads over the situation. If the tail were really originating from the pulsar, the brightest portion should most likely be nearest the star, yet in this case the brightest portion is at the opposite end. This is even more shocking when you do a little math and realize that the tail is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.2 light years long. This would be a record-setting tail for a rotation-powered pulsar.
There are more reasons than one why this tail should not be originating from the star. We have to keep in mind, too, that astronomers are not 100% certain that this really is PSR J0357’s tail. More observations will need to be made to know for certain if this really is the pulsar’s tail and why it is providing such odd data readings.
Image and story credit: NASA.

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