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Top High-Energy Astronomy Prize Awarded for Ultra-Magnetic Star Discovery

Top High-Energy Astronomy Prize Awarded for Ultra-Magnetic Star Discovery

Ilana Harrus
HEAD Press Officer

January 15, 2003

Washington, D.C. -- Three scientists have won this year's Bruno Rossi Prize, awarded by the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), for their groundbreaking work on identifying magnetars, exotic stars with magnetic fields powerful enough to strip clean a credit card 100,000 miles away.

Sharing the award are Robert Duncan and Christopher Thompson, who predicted the existence of magnetars and coined the name, and Chryssa Kouveliotou, who provided the first observational evidence.

"I am delighted about winning the prize," Duncan said upon hearing the news. " My wife and I opened a bottle of champagne."

Duncan is an astrophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin. Thompson is at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. Together they laid the theoretical groundwork for the magnetar as early as 1992. The magnetar, they theorized, would be a rapidly spinning neutron star with a magnetic field over a hundred trillion times stronger that the Sun's and Earth's magnetic field. A neutron star is the compact, core remains of a star once larger than the Sun that exploded in a supernova event.

Kouveliotou works for the National Space Science and Technology Center at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Using NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer and the Japanese Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics, she and her colleagues found that a neutron star they were studying was slowing down at precisely the rate required for a magnetic field of 800 trillion Gauss -- on the order of what Duncan and Thompson predicted. The Earth's magnetic field is about half a Gauss.

Kouveliotou has since identified several more magnetars, also characterized as Soft Gamma-ray Repeaters because they release pulses of gamma rays. Scientists have also found that Anomalous X-ray Pulsars, releasing pulses of X rays, are magnetars. The crushing magnetic fields -- slowing the star's spin and causing the surface to periodical crack -- are thought to be the cause of a magnetar's unusual pattern of radiation.

The AAS High Energy Astrophysics Division awards the Rossi Prize in recognition of significant contributions as well as recent and original work in High Energy Astrophysics. In awarding the prize, the HEAD executive committee recognized "Robert Duncan and Christopher Thompson for their prediction," and "Chryssa Kouveliotou for her observational confirmation, of the existence of magnetars: neutron stars with extraordinarily strong magnetic fields."

The prize is in honor of Professor Bruno Rossi, an authority of cosmic rays whose experimental techniques at the Los Alamos Laboratory and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave birth to the field of X-ray astronomy. The Rossi Prize also includes a $1,500 award.

Contact information of the three winners of the prize.

Robert Duncan
University of Texas at Austin
(Work): +1 512-471-7426
(Fax): +1 512-471-6016

For more information about magnetars, refer to Duncan's web site at

Christopher Thompson
Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA) - Toronto, Canada
(Fax): +1 416-978-8784
(Fax): +1 256-961-7215

Chryssa Kouveliotou
National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC)
Marshall Space Flight Center - Huntsville, Alabama
(Work): +1 256-961-7604
(Fax): +1 256-961-7215


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