A team of astronomers has performed one of the highest resolution observations in astronomical history by observing two intense regions of radiation, 20 kilometers apart, around a star 6500 light-years away.
The observation is equivalent to using a telescope on Earth to see a flea on the surface of Pluto.
The extraordinary observation was made possible by the rare geometry and characteristics of a pair of stars orbiting each other.
The pulsar PSR B1957+20 is seen in the background through the cloud of gas enveloping its brown dwarf star companion. Image: Dr. Mark A. Garlick; Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto
One is a cool, lightweight star called a brown dwarf, which features a “wake” or comet-like tail of gas. The other is an exotic, rapidly spinning star called a pulsar.
“The gas is acting like a magnifying glass right in front of the pulsar,” says Robert Main, a PhD astronomy student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto and lead author of the paper, said.
“We are essentially looking at the pulsar through a naturally occurring magnifier which periodically allows us to see the two regions separately.”
The pulsar is a neutron star that rotates rapidly—over 600 times a second. As the pulsar spins, it emits beams of radiation from the two hotspots on its surface. The intense regions of radiation being observed are associated with the beams.
The brown dwarf star is about a third the diameter of the Sun. It is roughly two million kilometers from the pulsar—or five times the distance between the Earth and the moon—and orbits around it in just over 9 hours. The dwarf companion star is tidally locked to the pulsar so that one side always faces its pulsating companion, the way the moon is tidally locked to the Earth.
Because it is so close to the pulsar, the brown dwarf star is blasted by the strong radiation coming from its smaller companion. The intense radiation from the pulsar heats one side of the relatively cool dwarf star to the temperature of our Sun, or some 6000°C.
The blast from the pulsar could ultimately spell its companion’s demise. Pulsars in these types of binary systems are called “black widow” pulsars. Just as a black widow spider eats its mate, it is thought the pulsar, given the right conditions, could gradually erode gas from the dwarf star until the latter is consumed.
“Many observed properties of FRBs could be explained if they are being amplified by plasma lenses,” say Main. “The properties of the amplified pulses we detected in our study show a remarkable similarity to the bursts from the repeating FRB, suggesting that the repeating FRB may be lensed by plasma in its host galaxy.”