Astronomers have discovered what may be the most powerful pulsar ever observed.
They suspect that the new object, VT 1137-0337, is a Pulsar Wind Nebula, a neutron star which accelerates nearby charged particles near the speed of light.
Astronomers spotted the pulsar in a series of images from the Very Large Array Sky Survey (VLASS), a project of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which conducts three full scans of the sky from the Very Large Area Network (VLA) near Socorro, New Mexico, for seven years. Researchers can analyze these images to look for transient objects such as supernova and gamma-ray bursts.
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For this new work, two Caltech astronomers – graduate student Dillon Dong and his thesis supervisor, Gregg Hallinan – compared a VLASS observation from January 2018 with one taken by the VLA in 1998 as part of the weak VLA images of the radio sky at twenty centimeter sounding.
They discovered 20 transient objects in the new image that did not exist in the old image. One object in particular, VT 1137-0337, located in a dwarf galaxy 395 million light years from Earthcaught their attention.
“This one stood out because its galaxy is experiencing a burst of star formation, and also because of the characteristics of its radio emission,” Dong said in A declaration.
This radio emission has similarities to a known pulsar wind nebula – the Crab Nebula in the constellation Bull – but it’s much more powerful. “The object we found appears to be about 10,000 times more energetic than the crab, with a stronger magnetic field,” Dong said. “This is probably an emerging ‘super crab’.”
Emergence is right: VT 1137-0337 is extremely young by astronomical standards. Hallinan estimates it to be between 14 and 80 years old, which would make it one of the youngest neutron stars ever observed.
There is a chance, however, that this energetic object is not a nebula wind pulsar at all. Instead, it could be a magnetar, a neutron star with an extremely strong magnetic field that could be the source of mysterious flashes called fast radio bursts.
“In this case, it would be the first magnetar caught in the act of appearing, and that too is extremely exciting,” Dong said.
Researchers will continue to study VT 1137-0337, monitoring it via subsequent VLASS observations. So far, the object has appeared in pictures every year since 2018.
Dong and Hallinan presented their research at the 240th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, in Pasadena, California.