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To mark this year’s Halloween, NASA has shared a new image of a star nebula that was taken by its X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) space observatory. The image is part of a study that saw the space observatory set its own record for focusing on an object in space for 17 days after it became operational in December 2021. This image resembles a human hand, showing a wind nebula 16,000 light-years away from Earth. Thousands from light years away from Earth, the pulsar PSR B1509-58 shows the remains a dead supergiant star and is part of a star creation region called a nebula.
NASA Captures Hand Shaped Emissions From A Neutron Star Through Its Space Observatory
Within the known universe, supergiants are among some of the biggest stars. Most of these stars are called main sequence stars, with the most commonly known example of them being the Sun. Main sequence stars exist due to their nuclear fusion that fuses atoms to create a chain reaction and generate energy and light.
Like every other thing, these stars are also subject to the conservation of matter, and to maintain their fusion reaction, they need hydrogen. Once this hydrogen runs out, main sequence stars with significantly more mass than the Sun explode and transform into neutron stars.
The by-products of this explosion create some of the most spectacular images, and the one NASA has shared today is one of these. It shows the pulsar wind nebula MS 15-52 which is part of the PSR B1509-58 nebula, first discovered by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory in 2001. For the uninitiated, a pulsar is a neutron star that was once a super giant but ran out of hydrogen to start a complex chain reaction.
Matter emitted by the PSR B1509-58 travels along a magnetic field, which gives the pulsar the shape of a human hand, according to Dr. Roger Romani. Dr. Romani is a professor at Stanford University, and his team led the study of the PSR B1509-58 that saw the IXPE spend 17 days observing the MSH 15-52 pulsar wind nebula.
The colorful composition of the wind nebula is due to the polarization of the X-rays emitted by the neutron star’s magnetic field. A magnetic field aligns high energy particles along its direction, and if these particles are energized, they can display greater magnetic properties.
The 17 day study enables scientists to confirm that the particles generated at the base of the wind nebule by the pulsar display weak polarization but are imparted high energy. When they travel to the outer regions of the wind nebula, i.e., the fingers, they align themselves to a polarized magnetic field.
In terms of practical application, the discoveries show scientists how particle acceleration is possible in outer space, as well as the crucial role that pulsars can play in this process. While not as large as the MSH 15-52, there are thousands of particle accelerators in the world. They are used for a wide variety of purposes, including sterilization and research.