Image of the Day: Strange Star Skeleton Found Orbiting Neutron Star

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Using NASA’s Swift and Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellites, astronomers discovered one of the most bizarre planet-mass objects ever found about 7 times the mass of Jupiter. But instead of orbiting a normal star, this low-mass body orbits a rapidly spinning pulsar. It orbits the pulsar every 54.7 minutes at an average distance of only about 230,000 miles (slightly less than the Earth-Moon distance).

"This object is merely the skeleton of a star," says co-discoverer Craig Markwardt of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "The pulsar has eaten away the star’s outer envelope, and all the remains is its helium-rich core."

Hans Krimm of NASA Goddard discovered the system when Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope picked up an outburst of X rays and gamma rays in the direction of the galactic center. The source was named SWIFT J1756.9-2508 for its sky coordinates in the constellation Sagittarius.

After analyzing the PCA data, Markwardt realized that the object was pulsing in X rays 182.07 times per second, which told him that it was a rapidly spinning pulsar. These so-called millisecond pulsars are neutron stars that spin hundreds of times per second, faster than a kitchen blender. Normally, the spin rate of neutron stars slows down as they age, but much like we can pull a string to “spin up” a top, gas spiraling onto a neutron star from its companion can maintain or even increase its fast spin.

The helium gas low mass companion may have a mass just a few times greater than Jupiter, but up close, it would probably look nothing like a planet.  Even though it is much larger than the pulsar, the pulsar is at least 100 times more massive.

The system probably formed several billion years ago, when it consisted of a very massive star and a smaller star with perhaps 1 to 3 solar masses. The more massive star evolved quickly and exploded as a supernova, leaving behind the neutron star.

Today, the two objects are so close to each other than the neutron star’s powerful gravity produces a tidal bulge on its companion, siphoning off gas that flows into a disk that surrounds the neutron star. The flow eventually becomes unstable and dumps large quantities of gas onto the neutron star, causing an outburst like the one observed in June.

The image above shows the low-mass companion in SWIFT J1756.9-2508, which although it may have a mass just a few times greater than Jupiter, but up close, it would probably look nothing like a planet. The object is probably dominated by helium gas. Even though it is much larger than the pulsar, the pulsar is at least 100 times more massive. (Credit: Aurore Simonnet/Sonoma State University).

The Daily Galaxy via  NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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