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"Cosmic Cannibals" expel jets of matter that contain elements needed for life

Astronomers have made a discovery by directly measuring the astonishing speed of cosmic jets. These powerful streams of matter, expelled by stars after violent nuclear explosions, travel at over one-third the speed of light.

This new insight illuminates the crucial role jets play in our universe, from facilitating the birth of stars to dispersing the essential elements for life across vast distances.

Neutron stars

Neutron stars represent one of the most extreme and fascinating phenomena in the cosmos, embodying the remnants of supernova explosions.

These stellar remnants are the dense cores left behind when a star of significant mass undergoes a catastrophic collapse, leading to a supernova.

The density of a neutron star is almost unfathomable, with the mass of approximately 1.4 times that of our Sun compressed into a sphere merely 20 kilometers in diameter.

This compaction results in an object with a gravitational pull billions of times stronger than Earth’s gravity, making neutron stars one of the universe’s most compelling gravitational forces.

Cosmic jets cannibalism

Neutron stars possess immense gravitational fields, a testament to their incredible density. This powerful gravity gives rise to the phenomenon known as “cosmic cannibalism.”

The neutron star’s pull is strong enough to draw in matter from nearby stars or even the remnants of planets. This captured material spirals around the neutron star, forming a swirling, high-speed accretion disk.

The intense gravity compresses and heats the material in the accretion disk to extreme temperatures. This superheated disk radiates intense energy, including X-rays and other forms of high-energy radiation that astronomers can detect from Earth.

The process of matter spiraling into the accretion disk and the energy it releases offer crucial insights into the lifecycle of stars and the dynamic forces governing our universe.

By studying neutron stars and their behavior, scientists gain a unique laboratory to explore the limits of physics under conditions impossible to replicate on Earth.

The speed of cosmic jets

As the cannibalistic star gorges itself, things get messy. All that swirling material heats up and some of it gets violently blasted outward in the form of jets.

These jets are crucial cosmic movers. They play a role in the birth of new stars, shuffle elements around the cosmos, and can even impact the behavior of black holes.

But until now, directly measuring their speed has been a challenge.

Astronomers insights

“The explosions occurred on neutron stars, which are incredibly dense and notorious for their enormous gravitational pull. The material, mostly hydrogen … swirls towards the collapsed star, falling like snow across its surface,” Jakob van den Eijnden, co-author of the study from the University of Warwick explained.

As more and more material rains down, the gravitational field compresses it until a runaway nuclear explosion is initiated. This explosion impacts the jets, that are also shot out from the infalling material and eject particles into space at very high speed.”

By comparing X-rays from the explosion (captured by the European Space Agency’s Integral satellite) and radio signals picked up by the Australia Telescope Compact Array, the team could analyze the timing and measure how fast the explosion’s impact zoomed down the jet.

It wasn’t just fast — we’re talking 35-40% the speed of light! If you’re into the numbers, that’s around 114,000 kilometers per second.

Why Stellar Snacking Matters

This isn’t just about cosmic speed records. Understanding the physics behind these jets helps scientists piece together the bigger picture of the universe:

Star birth

Jets from neutron stars are key to how matter moves around in space. They help gas clouds get denser, which starts the creation of new stars.

This action is crucial for how galaxies grow and change. It shapes their form, their size, and where stars are located inside them.

The power and speed of these jets also make big spaces in the clouds of space. This changes how dense these clouds are.

Because of this, where and when new stars form can change. The gas needs to be in the right place and have enough of it for a star to begin.

Spreading life’s building blocks

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of these cosmic jets is their role in disseminating the elements necessary for life as we know it.

The thermonuclear reactions on the surfaces of neutron stars can forge heavier elements from lighter ones.

When these elements are ejected into space by jets, they contribute to the cosmic “mix,” enriching the interstellar medium with carbon, oxygen, and other essential elements.

Over time, these materials can be incorporated into new planetary systems, potentially giving rise to life.

In this way, the violent events surrounding neutron stars are indirectly linked to the very existence of life across the universe, highlighting the interconnectedness of cosmic phenomena.

Understanding physics

Neutron stars are incredibly dense and have very strong gravity. They are like natural labs for scientists. They let us see how matter behaves under extreme conditions we can’t create on Earth.

When neutron stars pull in and then shoot out matter quickly, it’s like they’re snacking. This shows us how matter acts when under a lot of gravity.

Studying this helps scientists check their ideas about high-energy physics and relativity. They learn about really dense matter, how jets form, and the energy in these extreme space environments.

Future directions of cosmic jets

Nathalie Degenaar, another co-author from the University of Amsterdam, puts it perfectly: “Based on previous data, we thought the explosion would destroy the location where the jet was being launched. But we saw exactly the opposite: a strong input into the jet rather than a disruption.”

This study is more than just a single discovery; it’s a blueprint for future cosmic exploration.

Scientists now have a new method to study jets from other events like supernovae and gamma-ray bursts.

In the words of study co-author Thomas Russell, “This gave us a perfect experiment.” We’re one step closer to unraveling the mysteries of how stars live, die, and shape the universe around them.

The study is published in Nature.


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