Nav: Home

Giant eruption reveals 'dead' star

June 16, 2009

An enormous eruption has found its way to Earth after travelling for many thousands of years across space. Studying this blast with ESA's XMM-Newton and Integral space observatories, astronomers have discovered a dead star belonging to a rare group: the magnetars.

X-Rays from the giant outburst arrived on Earth on 22 August 2008, and triggered an automatic sensor on the NASA-led, international Swift satellite. Just twelve hours later, XMM-Newton zeroed in and began to collect the radiation, allowing the most detailed spectral study of the decay of a magnetar outburst.

The outburst lasted for more than four months, during which time hundreds of smaller bursts were measured. Nanda Rea from the University of Amsterdam led the team that performed the research. "Magnetars allow us to study extreme matter conditions that cannot be reproduced on Earth," she says.

Magnetars are the most intensely magnetised objects in the Universe. Their magnetic fields are some 10 000 million times stronger than Earth's. If a magnetar were to magically appear at half the Moon's distance from Earth, its magnetic field would wipe the details off every credit card on Earth.

This particular magnetar, known as SGR 0501+4516, is estimated to lie about 15 000 light-years away, and was undiscovered until its outburst gave it away. An outburst takes place when the unstable configuration of the magnetic field pulls the magnetar's crust, allowing matter to spew outwards in an exotic volcanic eruption. This matter tangles with the magnetic field which itself can change its configuration, releasing more energy. And this was where Integral came in.

Only five days after the big eruption, Integral detected highly energetic X-rays coming from the outburst, beyond the energy range that XMM-Newton can see. It is the first time such transient X-ray emission has been detected during the outburst. It disappeared within 10 days and was probably generated as the magnetic configuration changed.

Magnetar outbursts can supply as much energy to Earth as solar flares, despite the fact they are far across our Galaxy, whereas the Sun is at our celestial doorstep. There are two ideas as to how a magnetar forms. One is that it is the tiny core left behind after a highly magnetic star has died. But such magnetic stars are very rare, with just a few known in our Galaxy.

Another suggestion is that during the death of a normal star, its tiny core is accelerated, providing a dynamo that strengthens its magnetic field, turning it into a magnetar.

Currently most astronomers favour the first idea but as yet they have no conclusive proof. "If we could just find a magnetar in a cluster of highly magnetic stars, that would prove it," says Rea.

So far only 15 magnetars in total are known in our Galaxy. SGR 0501+4516 is the first new soft gamma repeater, one of the two types of magnetars, discovered after a decade of searches. So, astronomers continue to search for more, waiting for the next giant eruption. As for their newly discovered SGR 0501+4516, the team has been granted time to return and observe it again next year with XMM-Newton. Now they know where to look, they hope to detect the object in a quiescent state, rather than in outburst, so that they can study the calm after a big storm.
-end-


European Space Agency

Related Magnetic Field Articles:

Understanding stars: How tornado-shaped flow in a dynamo strengthens the magnetic field
A new simulation based on the von-Kármán-Sodium (VKS) dynamo experiment takes a closer look at how the liquid vortex created by the device generates a magnetic field.
'Quartz' crystals at the Earth's core power its magnetic field
Scientists at the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology report in Nature (Fen.
Brightest neutron star yet has a multipolar magnetic field
Scientists have identified a neutron star that is consuming material so fast it emits more x-rays than any other.
Confirmation of Wendelstein 7-X magnetic field
Physicist Sam Lazerson of the US Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory has teamed with German scientists to confirm that the Wendelstein 7-X fusion energy device called a stellarator in Greifswald, Germany, produces high-quality magnetic fields that are consistent with their complex design.
High-precision magnetic field sensing
Scientists have developed a highly sensitive sensor to detect tiny changes in strong magnetic fields.
Brilliant burst in space reveals universe's magnetic field
Scientists have detected the brightest fast burst of radio waves in space to date -- locating the source of the event with more precision than previous efforts.
Optical magnetic field sensor can detect signals from the nervous system
The human body is controlled by electrical impulses in the brain, the heart and nervous system.
What did Earth's ancient magnetic field look like?
New work from Carnegie's Peter Driscoll suggests Earth's ancient magnetic field was significantly different than the present day field, originating from several poles rather than the familiar two.
Just what sustains Earth's magnetic field anyway?
Earth's magnetic field shields us from deadly cosmic radiation, and without it, life as we know it could not exist here.
Ironing out the mystery of Earth's magnetic field
The Earth's magnetic field has been existing for at least 3.4 billion years thanks to the low heat conduction capability of iron in the planet's core.

Related Magnetic Field Reading:

Know Your Magnetic Field: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life.
by William E. Gray (Author)

Earth's Magnetic Field Secrets: An Illusion Mixed With Reality
by Dennis Brooks (Author)

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today
by Valerie Cassel Oliver (Author), Lowery Stokes Sims (Author), Erin Dziedzic (Editor), Melissa Messina (Editor)

NOW 2 kNOW Electro-Magnetic Fields
by Dr. T G D'Alberto (Author)

Power Tools for Health: How Pulsed Magnetic Fields (Pemfs) Help You
by Msc William Pawluk MD (Author), Caitlin Layne (Author)

Magnetic Fields in the Solar System: Planets, Moons and Solar Wind Interactions (Astrophysics and Space Science Library)
by Hermann Lühr (Editor), Johannes Wicht (Editor), Stuart A. Gilder (Editor), Matthias Holschneider (Editor)

The Magnetic Fields
by André Breton (Author), Philippe Soupault (Author), David Gascoyne (Translator)

Analysis and Computation of Electric and Magnetic Field Problems: Pergamon International Library of Science, Technology, Engineering and Social Studies
by K. J. Binns (Author)

Magnetic Fields: A Comprehensive Theoretical Treatise for Practical Use
by Heinz E. Knoepfel (Author)

Magnetic Field(s)
by Ron Loewinsohn (Author), Steve Erickson (Preface)

Best Science Podcasts 2018

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2018. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

The Story Behind The Numbers
Is life today better than ever before? Does the data bear that out? This hour, TED speakers explore the stories we tell with numbers — and whether those stories portray the full picture. Guests include psychologist Steven Pinker, economists Tyler Cowen and Michael Green, journalist Hanna Rosin, and environmental activist Paul Gilding.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#486 Volcanoes
This week we're talking volcanoes. Because there are few things that fascinate us more than the amazing, unstoppable power of an erupting volcano. First, Jessica Johnson takes us through the latest activity from the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii to help us understand what's happening with this headline-grabbing volcano. And Janine Krippner joins us to highlight some of the lesser-known volcanoes that can be found in the USA, the different kinds of eruptions we might one day see at them, and how damaging they have the potential to be. Related links: Kilauea status report at USGS A beginner's guide to Hawaii's otherworldly...