In 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen made a groundbreaking discovery when he found X-rays, which he initially used to create images of his wife’s hand bones. This discovery marked the beginning of a revolutionary tool for medical diagnostics.
Fast forward to the present day, two of NASA’s X-ray space telescopes have joined forces to reveal a fascinating structure in space that resembles a hand. This structure is actually a remnant of a collapsed star, and by using X-ray imaging, these telescopes have exposed the “magnetic field bones” of this celestial hand.
Around 1,500 years ago, a massive star in our galaxy exhausted its nuclear fuel and underwent a catastrophic collapse, forming a super-dense object known as a neutron star. These neutron stars, particularly the ones with powerful magnetic fields, are called pulsars. They serve as unique laboratories for studying extreme physics conditions that are impossible to replicate on Earth.
Young pulsars have the ability to emit jets of matter and antimatter from their poles, along with a powerful outflow of particles, creating a feature known as a “pulsar wind nebula.” This phenomenon offers a glimpse into the remarkable behavior of these collapsed stars that continue to influence their surroundings with high-energy matter and antimatter particles.
Astronomers are gaining valuable insights into how pulsars inject particles into space and shape their surroundings by combining data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). In particular, they have been studying a unique pulsar wind nebula referred to as MSH 15-52, which has a shape resembling a human hand.
In 2001, Chandra observed the pulsar PSR B1509-58 and identified its associated pulsar wind nebula as MSH 15-52, resembling a hand. This pulsar is situated at the “palm” of the nebula and is located 16,000 light-years away from Earth.
The IXPE telescope, NASA’s newest X-ray instrument, has observed MSH 15-52 for an extended period, offering the longest continuous study of a single celestial object since its launch in December 2021. This extended observation has allowed researchers to create the first map of the magnetic field within the hand-shaped nebula.
IXPE’s unique capability lies in its ability to provide information about the orientation of the electric field of X-rays, which is influenced by the magnetic field of the X-ray source. This is referred to as X-ray polarization. Remarkably, in large portions of MSH 15-52, the level of polarization is exceptionally high, reaching the maximum theoretical limit. This indicates that the magnetic field in these regions is notably straight and uniform, indicating minimal turbulence within the pulsar wind nebula.
One of the fascinating features of MSH 15-52 is a bright X-ray jet that extends from the pulsar to the “wrist” at the bottom of the hand-shaped image. The new IXPE data reveal that the polarization at the beginning of the jet is low, likely due to the complex and tangled magnetic fields in this turbulent region. However, as the jet progresses, the magnetic field lines become straighter and more uniform, leading to a significant increase in polarization.
In summary, by studying the X-ray and polarization data from Chandra and IXPE, scientists are unraveling the magnetic field structure and dynamics of MSH 15-52, shedding light on how particles are injected into space and providing valuable insights into the formation and behavior of objects like pulsar wind nebulae.
The findings suggest that particles near the pulsar at the base of the “hand” are given an energy boost, particularly in complex and turbulent regions. These energized particles then flow towards areas where the magnetic field is uniform along the “wrist,” “fingers,” and “thumb” of the celestial hand.
In simpler terms, the pulsar serves as a sort of particle accelerator, where particles gain significant energy in the turbulent regions near the pulsar. These particles then move along the “fingers” and “wrist” where the magnetic field is more organized and uniform. The ability to trace the life history of highly energetic matter and antimatter particles around the pulsar offers valuable insights into how pulsars can function as natural particle accelerators.
Moreover, the IXPE telescope has identified similar magnetic field patterns in other pulsar wind nebulae like Vela and Crab, indicating that these features may be more common in such celestial objects than previously thought. These exciting results have been published in a new paper in The Astrophysical Journal.
The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) is a collaborative project involving NASA and the Italian Space Agency, with contributions from scientists and partners in 12 different countries. The mission is led by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The spacecraft operations are managed by Ball Aerospace, headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado, in partnership with the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.
The Chandra X-ray Observatory program is overseen by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, while the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center manages the scientific and flight operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts, with flight operations conducted from Burlington, Massachusetts.