'Missing Link' Neutron Star Could Provide Insight To The Universe, Stellar Evolution

A strange star discovered in 2000 may provide a "missing link" to understanding how stars develop and die. The star may also provide new insight into the magnetic and radioactive forces behind some of the densest and most powerful bodies in the universe, according to a new report from Phys.org.

"Like anthropologists piecing together the human family tree, astronomers have found that a misfit 'skeleton' of a star may link two different kinds of stellar remains," the Phys.org article reads. "The mysterious object, called PSR J1119-6127, has been caught behaving like two distinct objects—a radio pulsar and a magnetar—and could be important to understanding their evolution."

Scientists have thought that pulsars and magnetars were two completely different types of objects since the 1970s.

"A radio pulsar is type of a neutron star—the extremely dense remnant of an exploded star—that emits radio waves in predictable pulses due to its fast rotation," Phys.org explains. "Magnetars, by contrast, are rabble rousers: They have violent, high-energy outbursts of X-ray and gamma ray light, and their magnetic fields are the strongest known in the universe."

Because it behaves like both a pulsar and a magnetar at different times, and alternates between the behaviors with ease, PSR J1119-6127 is throwing the presumption that pulsars and magnetars are two different types of bodies into question.

"This neutron star wears two different hats," said Walid Majid, an astrophysicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Sometimes it's a pulsar. Sometimes it's a magnetar. This object may tell us something about the underlying mechanism of pulsars in general."

The unusual behavior of PSR J1119-6127 is leading some astronomers to speculate that instead of being distinct objects, pulsars and a magnetars are actually just different stages in the evolutionary cycle of of the same type of neutron star. That's why they are calling it a missing link that connects the two.

"This is the final missing link in the chain that connects pulsars and magnetars," Phys.org quoted Victoria Kaspi, an astrophysicist at McGill University as saying. "It seems like there's a smooth transition between these two kinds of neutron star behaviors."

Several studies of PSR J1119-6127's X-ray activity have been conducted since it was discovered in 2000. It initially appeared to be calm and stable like a standard radio pulsar. However, in subsequent studies, powerful and random X-ray bursts were detected. Two reports on the neutron star's erratic X-ray activity have been published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, the latter included evidence drawn from observations from NASA's NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) telescope.

One astronomer has suggested that the X-ray bursts occurred because PSR J1119-6127's "enormous magnetic field got twisted."

"The stress of a twisting magnetic field is so great that it causes the outer crust of the neutron star to break—analogous to tectonic plates on Earth causing earthquakes," Phys.org explains. "This causes an abrupt change in rotation, called a 'glitch,' which has been measured by NuSTAR."

While PSR J1119-6127 remains unique in the sense that, as of now, it appears to be obviously demonstrating characteristics of both a radio pulsar and a magnetar — and thus possibly exposing a missing link in the evolutionary development between two stages of a neutron star — there are other similar stars that appear to be acting in the same way, though in not such an obvious manner.

For instance, in 2007, the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics published an essay on the research of several radio pulsars whose magnetic fields demonstrated some of the characteristics of magnetars. The research was the first phase in ongoing studies of the dying stars. The next phase will attempt to determine if the magnetar-like readings are true or if they have somehow been "polluted," either by misinterpretation or by other factors influencing them.

Astronomical research and scientific consensus is a slow process, so it may be a while before we know for certain whether or not PSR J1119-6127 is actually some sort of celestial missing link.

[Featured image by European Space Agency/Getty Images]