Magnetars are a type of neutron star with tremendously powerful magnetic fields trillions of times as strong as those of the Sun and they can erupt with massive bursts of energy. Although magnetars are invisible at wavelengths that the human eye can see, they can be detected with an X-ray telescope like the one at NASA’s Swift space observatory. Until recently, only 29 magnetars had been discovered.
NASA’s Swift space observatory’s science and flight operations are managed by Penn State from the University Park campus. Recently, the X-Ray Telescope at Swift captured a short burst of unusual X-rays coming from an object approximately nine thousand light-years from Earth.
Intense, extremely rapid fluctuations measured in milliseconds characterized the burst. This fingerprint is so unique that teams of astronomers worldwide quickly acquired observing time with additional space observatories including NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to study the phenomena.
David Burrows, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State notes that the most powerful magnetic fields in the universe are produced by spinning neutron stars. Although neutron stars spin multiple times a minute, the multiple observations revealed that this one rotates only once about every six and a half hours. This makes it the slowest spinning star in its class that has been discovered.
The data collected by the Chandra X-ray Observatory reveal that this object has the properties of a magnetar, which would make it the 30th discovered to date. RCW103 is a supernova remnant whose remains formed a colorful cloud of material when it exploded as a massive supernova. The object whose X-rays were detected is located in the center of this cloud.
Burrows explains that Gordon Garmire, now a Penn State Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics discovered a huge X-ray flare shooting out into space from this object in 1979. At the same time, Garmire found that the supernova surrounding this object produced X-rays.
The Swift observatory, in detecting the very unusual, short X-ray spike produced by this object, has helped to expose at the heart of this supernova remnant the most extreme rotating magnetized neutron star ever detected. Based on the data from the three telescopes combined with historic records from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton observatory, Swift and Chandra, NASA has confirmed that the object has the properties of a magnetar.