An elusive missing object hidden amid a complex tangle of gaseous filaments in the Small Magellanic Cloud, about 200,000 light-years from Earth has been discovered by astronomers using new data from the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.
A remarkable ring of gas in a system called 1E 0102.2-7219, expands slowly within the depths of numerous other fast-moving filaments of gas and dust left behind after a supernova.
The team noticed that the ring was centered on an X-ray source that had been noted years before and designated p1. The nature of this source had remained a mystery.
In particular, it was not clear whether p1 actually lies inside the remnant or behind it. It was only when the ring of gas — which includes both neon and oxygen — was observed with MUSE that the science team noticed it perfectly circled p1. The coincidence was too great, and they realised that p1 must lie within the supernova remnant itself. Once p1’s location was known, the team used existing X-ray observations from the Chandra X-ray Observatory to determine that it must be an isolated neutron star, with a low magnetic field.
“If you look for a point source, it doesn’t get much better than when the Universe quite literally draws a circle around it to show you where to look,” ESO astronomer Frédéric Vogt said in a press release.
When massive stars explode as supernovae, they leave behind a curdled web of hot gas and dust, known as a supernova remnant. These turbulent structures are key to the redistribution of the heavier elements — which are cooked up by massive stars as they live and die — into the interstellar medium, where they eventually form new stars and planets.