A New Type of “Black Widow” Pulsar Discovered

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Scientists from Caltech, MIT, and a few other organizations have found a super-dense collapsed star disassembling another star. A third star orbiting the pair from a substantial distance is also a first in astronomy.

The Black Widow Pulsar

A supernova is a massive star that explodes at the end of its life cycle, and a massive star explodes as a supernova. Depending on the star’s original size, the core then collapses into either a super-dense neutron star or black hole — it is like taking the sun’s mass and stuffing it into an area of an average city.

A pulsar is a type of neutron star. These stars rotate fast as it beams radiation in opposite directions. If the beams cross an astronomer’s line of sight, it makes the star look as if it is pulsing.

A black widow pulsar steals matter from a star close by. This consistent flash of radiation from the pulsar leads the side of the nearby star facing it (the “day” side) to be considerably brighter and hotter than its other side (the “night” side).

Finding Binary Star Systems

There have been two dozen black widow binary star systems that have been found in the Milky Way galaxy by searching for the pulsar’s streaks of X-ray and gamma radiation.

Although, a new study published in Nature took a new approach.

Study author Kevin Burdge said, “Instead of searching directly for the pulsar, try to find the star cannibalizing.”

Scientists looked through copious amounts of telescope data for stars whose glow changed radically (by at least a factor of 10 or more) each hour — that is what astronomers expected a binary star to look like from Earth when it is getting baked by a black widow pulsar.

Using this method, scientists were able to find 12 known black widow binary star systems. However, they would also find a new star whose glow changed every 62 minutes, suggesting that an unknown black widow pulsar was eating it.

Black Widow Binary Star Systems

How this black widow binary star system was detected is just one of the various exciting things. The 62-minute-long orbital period is a lot shorter than all known systems, and it is being orbited by a very distant third star that occurs every 10,000 years.

It isn’t clear how these three stars came to create this system, and it is known as “ZTF J1406+1222,” although MIT thinks they began in a dense cluster of stars ripped apart by a supermassive black hole found at the center of the Milky Way.

A Pulsar Future

The team has not confirmed their black widow pulsar that uses X-ray or gamma detection, so it is a candidate. Thus, they plan to study it further and use the optical method to look for more systems.

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Dean Mathers


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