Scientists are Baffled by Strange Infrared Signal Emanating from Space

Christopher Davidson
September 21, 2018

But an worldwide group of researchers from Penn State, the University of Arizona and Sabanci University in Turkey observed something interesting in NASA's Hubble Space Telescope data: a long signal of infrared light emitted near a neutron star, the researchers reported yesterday in The Astrophysical Journal.

Neutron stars, the smallest and densest of their kind, form from the supernova explosion of a massive star. The only-known astronomical body with more density than a neutron star is a black hole.

This illustration depicts a "pulsar wind nebula" another source that could have produced this infrared signature.

This particular neutron star, which is named RX J0806.4-4123, belongs to a group of seven X-ray pulsars that have been dubbed as "the Magnificent Seven".

"The emission is clearly above what the neutron star itself emits - it doesn't come from the neutron star alone", the study's lead author Bettina Posselt, associate research professor at Penn State University, told Gizmodo. Fallback discs could (in theory) stretch up to 18 billion miles across, but so far not a single one has been found. What makes it interesting is the fact that for the first time, a neutron star emitted an infrared signal.

The research, published in the Astrophysical Journal, offers two theories on what could be causing the extended infrared emission. The first is that there is a disk of material - possibly mostly dust - surrounding the pulsar.

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Pulsar wind nebulas are also usually only observed in X-rays, so an infrared one would be "very unusual and exciting". Such a disk would be composed of matter from the massive progenitor star. Its subsequent interaction with the neutron star could have heated the pulsar and slowed its rotation. "If confirmed as a supernova fallback disk, this result could change our general understanding of neutron star evolution". Neutron stars can also be called "pulsars" if they are highly magnetized and rotate rapidly enough to emit electromagnetic waves, according to Space.com.

"A pulsar wind nebula would require that the neutron star exhibits a pulsar wind", said Posselt.

A pulsar wind can form when electrons from a neutron star are accelerated in an electric field produced by the neutron star's fast rotation and strong magnetic field, according to the NASA statement. As the neutron star moves through space, typically faster than the speed of sound, it crashes into the interstellar medium - those tiny bits of gas and dust that reside between large celestial objects. But an global team of researchers from USA and Turkey have discovered a large infrared signal emitted in the close proximity of a neutron star.

"Although neutron stars are generally studied in radio and high-energy emissions, such as X-rays, this study demonstrates that new and interesting information about neutron stars can also be gained by studying them in infrared light", NASA explained in an article published on September 17, citing researchers. Hubble has discovered features around a neutron star that have never been seen before leaving scientists trying to figure out what has been discovered.

For the new study on the odd infrared signal, researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Arizona collaborated with researchers from Sabanci University in Turkey.

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