NASA's Fermi satellite detects first gamma-ray pulsar in another galaxy

November 12, 2015

Researchers using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have discovered the first gamma-ray pulsar in a galaxy other than our own. The object sets a new record for the most luminous gamma-ray pulsar known.

The pulsar lies in the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy that orbits our Milky Way and is located 163,000 light-years away. The Tarantula Nebula is the largest, most active and most complex star-formation region in our galactic neighborhood. It was identified as a bright source of gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light, early in the Fermi mission. Astronomers initially attributed this glow to collisions of subatomic particles accelerated in the shock waves produced by supernova explosions.

"It's now clear that a single pulsar, PSR J0540-6919, is responsible for roughly half of the gamma-ray brightness we originally thought came from the nebula," said lead scientist Pierrick Martin, an astrophysicist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse, France. "That is a genuine surprise."

When a massive star explodes as a supernova, the star's core may survive as a neutron star, where the mass of half a million Earths is crushed into a magnetized ball no larger than Washington, D.C. A young isolated neutron star spins tens of times each second, and its rapidly spinning magnetic field powers beams of radio waves, visible light, X-rays and gamma rays. If the beams sweep past Earth, astronomers observe a regular pulse of emission and the object is classified as a pulsar.

The Tarantula Nebula was known to host two pulsars, PSR J0540-6919 (J0540 for short) and PSR J0537?6910 (J0537), which were discovered with the help of NASA's Einstein and Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellites, respectively. J0540 spins just under 20 times a second, while J0537 whirls at nearly 62 times a second -- the fastest-known rotation period for a young pulsar.

Nevertheless, it took more than six years of observations by Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT), as well as a complete reanalysis of all LAT data in a process called Pass 8, to detect gamma-ray pulsations from J0540. The Fermi data establish upper limits for gamma-ray pulses from J0537 but do not yet detect them.

Martin and his colleagues present these findings in a paper to be published in the Nov. 13 edition of the journal Science.

"The gamma-ray pulses from J0540 have 20 times the intensity of the previous record-holder, the pulsar in the famous Crab Nebula, yet they have roughly similar levels of radio, optical and X-ray emission," said coauthor Lucas Guillemot, at the Laboratory for Physics and Chemistry of Environment and Space, operated by CNRS and the University of Orléans in France. "Accounting for these differences will guide us to a better understanding of the extreme physics at work in young pulsars."

J0540 is a rare find, with an age of roughly 1,700 years, about twice that of the Crab Nebula pulsar. By contrast, most of the more than 2,500 known pulsars are from 10,000 to hundreds of millions of years old.

Despite J0540's luminosity, too few gamma rays reach the LAT to detect pulsations without knowing the period in advance. This information comes from a long-term X-ray monitoring campaign using RXTE, which recorded both pulsars from the start of the Fermi mission to the end of 2011, when RXTE operations ceased.

"This campaign began as a search for a pulsar created by SN 1987A, the closest supernova seen since the invention of the telescope," said co-author Francis Marshall, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "That search failed, but it discovered J0537."

Prior to the launch of Fermi in 2008, only seven gamma-ray pulsars were known. To date, the mission has found more than 160.

NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy and with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.
-end-


NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Related Supernova Articles from Brightsurf:

Scientists discover supernova that outshines all others
A supernova at least twice as bright and energetic, and likely much more massive than any yet recorded has been identified by an international team of astronomers, led by the University of Birmingham.

Supernova observation first of its kind using NASA satellite
Their research, detailed in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, represents the first published findings about a supernova observed using TESS, and add new insights to long-held theories about the elements left behind after a white dwarf star explodes into a supernova.

Astronomers find possible elusive star behind supernova
Astronomers may have finally found a doomed star that seemed to have avoided detection before its explosive death.

Stellar thief is the surviving companion to a supernova
Hubble found the most compelling evidence that some supernovas originate in double-star systems.

Supernova may have 'burped' before exploding
Only by increasing the rate at which telescopes monitor the sky has it been possible to catch more Fast-Evolving Luminous Transients (FELTs) and begin to understand them.

An unusual white dwarf may be a supernova leftover
Astronomers have identified a white dwarf star in our galaxy that may be the leftover remains of a recently discovered type of supernova.

Researchers show how to make your own supernova
Researchers from the University of Oxford are using the largest, most intense lasers on the planet, to for the first time, show the general public how to recreate the effects of supernovae, in a laboratory.

The big star that couldn't become a supernova
For the first time in history, astronomers have been able to watch as a dying star was reborn as a black hole.

Seeing quadruple: Four images of the same supernova, a rare find
Galaxies bend light through an effect called gravitational lensing that helps astronomers peer deeper into the cosmos.

Explosive material: The making of a supernova
Pre-supernova stars may show signs of instability for months before the big explosion

Read More: Supernova News and Supernova Current Events
Brightsurf.com 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 Amazon.com.