Pulsar rips hole in companion star's disk

Artist's illustration
A double star system 7,500 light years away from Earth has witnessed a pulsar puncturing a hole in a disk of gas around its companion star. The collision launched a clump of the disk’s stellar material fragments at a speed of about 4 million miles per hour.

The system in question – PSR B1259-63/LS 2883 – consists of two objects. The first is a massive star calculated to be 30 times larger than the sun with a disk of material swirling around it. Its mate is a pulsar or an ultra-dense neutron star that spins 20 times a second orbiting around its companion star.

After analyzing three separate Chandra X-ray observations taken between 2011 and 2014, researchers came to the conclusion that the pulsar, traveling its elliptical orbit lasting 41 months, has collided with the disk and knocked out a clump of debris.

“These two objects are in an unusual cosmic arrangement and have given us a chance to witness something special,” said George Pavlov of Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, lead author of a paper describing these results. “As the pulsar moved through the disk, it appears that it punched a clump of material out and flung it away into space.”

© NASA

While the clump of stellar material is a hundred times the size of the solar system, its mass is quite low and equivalent to all the water in the Earth’s oceans.

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Data also revealed that that the space clump is accelerating rapidly. At first sighting, the clump was registered moving at about 7 percent the speed of light, but other observations made by astronomers concluded that the debris has accelerated to 15 percent the speed of light between the second and third observations.

Researchers explain the speeding phenomenon is caused by the pulsar’s rapid rotation and strong magnetic fields.

“After this clump of stellar material was knocked out, the pulsar’s wind appears to have accelerated it, almost as if it had a rocket attached,” said co-author Oleg Kargaltsev of George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC.

The Chandra X-Ray observatory continues monitoring the system and its moving space clump with observations scheduled for later this year and in 2016.