Hubble Finds New Features Around Neutron Star

Stace Johnson

A new paper out in The Astrophysical Journal details the findings of an international team of astronomers regarding RXJ0806.4–4123, a relatively close neutron star in a cluster called the "Magnificent Seven." In it, researchers from Penn State, Sabanci University in Turkey, and the University of Arizona detail an unusual infrared emission from the pulsar that indicates the possibility of never-before-seen features.

Bettina Posselt is an associate research professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and the lead author of the paper, entitled "Discovery of Extended Infrared Emission around the Neutron Star RXJ0806.4–4123."

We observed an extended area of infrared emissions around this neutron star... the total size of which translates into about 200 astronomical units (or 2.5 times the orbit of Pluto around the Sun) at the assumed distance of the pulsar.

One possible explanation is that there is a "fallback disk" comprised of material left over from the original star's supernova explosion. If such a disk of cosmic dust exists and is oriented so that the disk is between the pulsar and the Earth, it could cause interference in the infrared spectrum that would fit the observations.

When the James Webb telescope launches in 2021 as a replacement for the Hubble, it will provide additional tools to observe pulsars in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, increasing our knowledge about how they form and the life cycles they go through. When fully deployed, the Webb telescope will exist at a relatively stable location between the Earth and sun known as a La Grange point, nearly 1 million miles from Earth. This location should provide unprecedented imagery due to lack of interference from nearby celestial bodies, but repairs -- like those performed on the faulty Hubble telescope mirror -- will be impossible due to the extreme distance from Earth.