Mystery Pulsar and Nebula Born From Same Supernova

An explosion in space may have created not only a brilliant nebula but also a rapidly spinning neutron star, according to new data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

An explosion in space may have created not only a brilliant nebula but also a rapidly spinning neutron star, according to new data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Observations of the Jellyfish Nebula, the remnant of a supernova 5,000 light-years from Earth, show an unusual object located on the southern edge of the nebula. Scientists have named the object CXOU J061705.3+222127, or J0617 for short, and they believe it is a stellar powerhouse known as a pulsar.

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When a massive star implodes, the outer layers of the star collapse inward, exploding into a supernova and leaving behind a dense core called a neutron star. A neutron star is called a "pulsar" when it spins and beams radiation like light from a lighthouse. [Strange Nebula Shapes: What Do You See? (Gallery)]

In the new view from Chandra, a ring surrounds the suspected pulsar, and a jetlike structure passes through it. Scientists think the ring indicates either a region in the nebula where a high-speed wind of particles flowing away from the pulsar abruptly slows down, or a shock wave, similar to a sonic boom, ahead of the pulsar wind. Similarly, the jet could be particles fired away from the pulsar in a narrow beam at high speed.

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The amount of X-ray radiation around the object provides further evidence that it is, in fact, a pulsar. NASA officials said the amount of X-ray radiation at different wavelengths, as well as the way the radiation spreads out surrounding the object, matches the patterns for known pulsars.

Some doubt exists, however, about whether the pulsar is really connected to the Jellyfish Nebula or whether it's just an unrelated neighbor. The pulsar's cometlike tail of X-ray emissions is aimed about 50 degrees away from what would be expected from a pulsar moving away from the center of a supernova remnant in a straight line. However, scientists say it could be explained by movement of material in the nebula that could change the direction of the cometary tail.

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Researchers remain uncertain about the Jellyfish Nebula's true age. While this research would suggest it's around 30,000 years old, other scientists have guessed its age to be only 3,000 years.

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New observations suggest that a pulsar embedded deep within the Jellyfish Nebula may have formed at the same time; both remnants of an ancient supernova blast.

This month marks the 15th year that NASA's awe-inspiring Chandra X-ray Space Telescope has been observing high-energy phenomena in the cosmos. With its X-ray vision, the orbiting telescope has brought us some of the most mind-blowing views of supernova remnants -- the glowing embers of stars that have (in cosmic timescales) recently exploded, spewing out hot gas and dust. Shock waves traveling millions of miles an hour can still be observed ripping through these interstellar clouds. Chandra's contribution to our understanding of the aftermath of a star's life has been nothing short of revolutionary, so to celebrate its 15 years in space,

NASA has released newly-processed images of four of Chandra's most famous supernova remnants.

Shown here is perhaps the most famous remnant of all. First observed by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe over 400 years ago, this beautifully symmetric expanding cloud is a perfect example of a supernova remnant in action. Powerful shock waves can be seen within the supersonic gases traveling outward and inward, energizing the stellar material as it goes. The blue outer shell of X-ray emissions is caused by these outward-propagating shock waves accelerating electrons, whereas the red and green emissions are energized gases accelerated by the inwardly propagating shocks.

This eerie supernova remnant was spawned in 1181 AD by a supernova observed by Chinese and Japanese astronomers. By zooming in on the central region of the remaining cloud of debris, Chandra has been able to resolve the impact of the rapidly spinning neutron star that can be seen in its core. A torus of X-ray-generating material can be seen. X-ray jets can be seen accelerating away from the neutron star to the left and right. This turbulent mess of high-energy gases, shocks and powerful magnetic fields has generated X-ray emissions across the energy spectrum. High-energy X-rays are the bright blue regions; the redder regions are lower energy X-rays.

As with 3C58, the Crab Nebula also has a spinning neutron star in its core and Chandra has gotten up-close and personal with this stellar corpse. Created from super-dense material that has collapsed in on itself after the supernova explosion, neutron stars retain much of the original star's spin -- but as the neutron star is only a few miles wide, the smaller object spins much faster, often many times per second. If the conditions are right, the neutron star can generate bright X-ray and radio emissions, becoming a pulsar. In the center of the Crab Nebula is a very well-known pulsar that sports an energetic ring of material and impressive jets spouting from its poles. The exploding star that generated this pulsar and remnant exploded in 1054 AD and was recorded by Chinese astronomers.

The supernova remnant G292.0+1.8 is of particular interest to astronomers. One of only three remnants in our galaxy known to contain large quantities of oxygen, G292.0+1.8 is a source of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. The high metalicity of debris clouds like these form the basis of metal-rich stars, planets and complex chemistry that forms the basis for life.

For more on these X-ray observations and details about the Chandra mission, browse the NASA news release.