Artist rendition of the black widow pulsar system PSR J1311-3430
Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Star Blaster

Massive stars live violent lives, and massive stars in binary star systems can wreak havoc on their companions too. In a massive binary, the more massive star burns up its nuclear fuel faster than the less massive star, and then, at the end of its nuclear burning life, explodes as a supernova, (sometimes) leaving behind an ultradense neutron star no bigger than the Washington DC beltway now orbiting the "normal" companion star (if the binary survives the explosion, that is). Neutron stars possess extremely strong magnetic fields which can accelerate charged particles like electrons and protons to enormous energies in beams directed along the magnetic poles. Neutron stars also spin rapidly, so the polar particle beams sweep through space in low energy radio radiation, and high-energy X- and Gamma-rays, doing immense damage to anything (like a companion star) in its path. One new system, called PSR J1311-3430, was recently discovered as a pulsing Gamma-ray source by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, then further observations in the optical showed that this pulsar was orbited by a companion star in a very tight 93-minute orbit no bigger than the orbit of the moon around the earth. The optical star was strange: extremely hot on one side and cool on the other. Astronomers realized that the hot side is heated by high-energy radiation from the companion pulsar. Radio observations showed that the high level of ionizing radiation from the pulsar strikes the companion and blasts away an enormous amount of material from it, whittling it down to just about 12 times the mass of the planet Jupiter. The pulsar itself is one of the most massive known, indicating that some of the mass lost by the companion has been accreted by the neutron star. A few other similar systems have been identified; astronomers call these "black widow" pulsars, since they kill their companions. What will eventually be left behind? Perhaps eventually the pulsar will turn its companion into a diamond planet.
Published: March 3, 2014

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Page Author: Dr. Michael F. Corcoran
Last modified Monday, 03-Mar-2014 10:06:33 EST