Astronomers use X-rays to probe gravitational field of a neutron star

June 06, 2002

With NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have detected features that may be the first direct evidence of the effect of gravity on radiation from a neutron star. This finding, if confirmed, could enable scientists to measure the gravitational field of neutron stars and determine whether they contain exotic forms of matter not seen on Earth.

A team led by George Pavlov of Penn State University in University Park observed 1E 1207.4-5209, a neutron star in the center of a supernova remnant about 7,000 light years
from Earth. The results were presented on
June 6, 2002, at the American Astronomical
Society in Albuquerque, N.M.

Pavlov's group found two dips, or absorption features, in the spectrum of X-rays from the star. If these dips are due to the absorption of X-rays near the star by helium ions in a strong magnetic field, they indicate that the gravitational field reduces the energies of X-rays escaping from near the surface of a neutron star.

"This interpretation is consistent with the data," said Pavlov, "but the features may be a blend of many other features. More precise measurements, preferably with Chandra's grating spectrometer, are needed."

"These absorption features may be the first evidence of the effect of gravity on radiation near the surface of an isolated neutron star," said Pavlov. "This is particularly important because it would allow us to set limits on the type of matter that comprises this star."

Neutron stars are formed when a massive star runs out of fuel and its core collapses. A supernova explosion occurs and the collapsed core is compressed to a hot object about 12 miles in diameter, with a thin atmosphere of hydrogen and possibly heavier ions in a gravitational field 100 billion times as strong as Earth's.

These objects, which have a density of more than 1 billion tons per teaspoonful, are called neutron stars because they have been thought to be composed mostly of neutrons. Although neutron stars have been studied extensively for more than three decades, their exact nature is still unknown.

"We are not even sure that neutron stars are composed of neutrons," said Divas Sanwal, also of Penn State, and lead author on a paper describing the team's results. "They could be largely composed of subatomic particles called pions or kaons, or even free quarks."

One key to narrow the range of possibilities is to measure the strength of gravity on the surface of a neutron star by observing its effect on X-rays from very near the surface of the star. According to Einstein's theory of General Relativity, attraction of photons by a star's gravitational field results in a lower energy of the photon (longer wavelength of radiation) when detected by a distant observer. The measurement of this gravitational redshift relates the mass to the radius of the star, and it will test the theories for the various possible forms of dense matter.

The team, which also includes Slava Zavlin of Max Plank Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany, and Marcus Teter of Penn State, considered several possible explanations for the absorption features observed from 1E 1207. The strength and X-ray energy of the features make it improbable that they are due to intervening interstellar material or absorption due to electrons or ions circling in a strong magnetic field. The most likely hypothesis, they conclude, is that the features are due to absorption by helium ions in a magnetic field about a hundred trillion times more intense than the Earth's magnetic field. In this case, the gravitational redshift reduces the energy of the X-rays by 17 percent.

Pavlov and his colleagues observed 1E 1027 with Chandra's Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer on January 6, 2000, and again on January 5, 2002, each time for approximately 30,000 seconds.

The ACIS instrument was built for NASA by Penn State and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. under the leadership of Gordon Garmire of Penn State. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for the Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. TRW, Inc., Redondo Beach, Calif., is the prime contractor for the spacecraft. The Smithsonian's Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge.

Images associated with this release are available on the World Wide Web at: AND

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center News Center

Related Magnetic Field Articles from Brightsurf:

Investigating optical activity under an external magnetic field
A new study published in EPJ B by Chengping Yin, Guangdong Provincial Key Laboratory of Quantum Engineering and Quantum Materials, South China, aims to derive an analytical model of optical activity in black phosphorous under an external magnetic field.

Magnetic field and hydrogels could be used to grow new cartilage
Instead of using synthetic materials, Penn Medicine study shows magnets could be used to arrange cells to grow new tissues

Magnetic field with the edge!
This study overturns a dominant six-decade old notion that the giant magnetic field in a high intensity laser produced plasma evolves from the nanometre scale.

Global magnetic field of the solar corona measured for the first time
An international team led by Professor Tian Hui from Peking University has recently measured the global magnetic field of the solar corona for the first time.

Magnetic field of a spiral galaxy
A new image from the VLA dramatically reveals the extended magnetic field of a spiral galaxy seen edge-on from Earth.

How does Earth sustain its magnetic field?
Life as we know it could not exist without Earth's magnetic field and its ability to deflect dangerous ionizing particles.

Scholes finds novel magnetic field effect in diamagnetic molecules
The Princeton University Department of Chemistry publishes research this week proving that an applied magnetic field will interact with the electronic structure of weakly magnetic, or diamagnetic, molecules to induce a magnetic-field effect that, to their knowledge, has never before been documented.

Origins of Earth's magnetic field remain a mystery
The existence of a magnetic field beyond 3.5 billion years ago is still up for debate.

New research provides evidence of strong early magnetic field around Earth
New research from the University of Rochester provides evidence that the magnetic field that first formed around Earth was even stronger than scientists previously believed.

Massive photons in an artificial magnetic field
An international research collaboration from Poland, the UK and Russia has created a two-dimensional system -- a thin optical cavity filled with liquid crystal -- in which they trapped photons.

Read More: Magnetic Field News and Magnetic Field Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to