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Ghostly "cosmic hand" discovered by NASA x-ray telescopes

Two of NASA’s X-ray telescopes have captured what appears to be the “bones” of a spectral cosmic hand, stretching its fingers into the vast expanse of space. 

Situated approximately 16,000 light-years away from our home planet, this chilling formation was observed for an unprecedented 17 days, marking the longest duration the telescope has been focused on a singular object since its inauguration in December 2021.

Otherworldly “cosmic hand” formation 

This otherworldly formation is not an entirely new discovery. While its presence has been known for some time, this is the longest the formation has been under observation. 

Emanating from a supernova explosion, the “hand” is a remnant of MSH 15-52, a celestial event that took place about 1,700 years ago. This supernova is considered one of the youngest in our Milky Way galaxy

Its explosion not only created this uncanny pattern but also gave birth to an ultra-dense, magnetized star, known as a pulsar.

Spectral remains 

“Around 1,500 years ago, a giant star in our galaxy ran out of nuclear fuel to burn,” explained a team of researchers led by Stanford University.

“When this happened, the star collapsed onto itself and formed an extremely dense object called a neutron star.”

Although NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory had initially identified MSH 15-52 in 2001, the agency’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) has since brought forth even more intricate details of these spectral remains, accompanied by a spine-chilling purple aura.

The magnetic field 

Roger Romani, who led the research, drew an analogy between the nebula and human anatomy. 

“The IXPE data gives us the first map of the magnetic field in the ‘hand,'” said Romani. “The charged particles producing the X-rays travel along the, determining the basic shape of the nebula like the bones do in a person’s hand.”

A noteworthy feature of IXPE is its ability to deduce the electric field orientation of X-rays, a phenomenon termed X-ray polarization. This is directed by the magnetic field of the X-ray source. 

“In large regions of MSH 15-52, the amount of polarization is remarkably high, reaching the maximum level expected from theoretical work,” said the researchers.

“To achieve that strength, the magnetic field must be very straight and uniform, meaning there is little turbulence in the pulsar wind nebula regions.”

“Cosmic hand” created by x-ray jet

Of all the mesmerizing facets of MSH 15-52, what caught the team’s attention was a radiant X-ray jet that seems to emanate from the pulsar, stretching to the “wrist” of the nebulous cosmic hand. 

“The new IXPE data reveal that the polarization at the start of the jet is low, likely because this is a turbulent region with complex, tangled magnetic fields associated with the generation of high-energy particles,” wrote the study authors. 

“By the end of the jet, the magnetic field lines appear to straighten and become much more uniform, causing the polarization to become much larger.”

This indicates that particles gain momentum in the turbulent areas near the pulsar, located at the hand’s base. The particles then progress to regions where the magnetic field is consistent, such as the wrist and fingers.

“We’ve uncovered the life history of super energetic matter and antimatter particles around the pulsar. This teaches us about how pulsars can act as particle accelerators,” said study co-author Niccolò Di Lalla.

More about the Chandra X-ray Observatory

The Chandra X-ray Observatory, a marvel of modern astronomy, allows scientists to explore the universe in ways previously unimaginable. It observes X-rays from high-energy regions of the universe, such as the remnants of exploded stars.

Chandra overview

Launched on July 23, 1999, aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, Chandra orbits far above the Earth’s atmosphere. At this altitude, it is free from the atmospheric interference that blocks X-rays from reaching our planet’s surface. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. Here are some of the key features of the telescope:

Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer

Chandra uses this instrument to obtain X-ray images and simultaneously extract vital information about the X-ray source, such as its spectrum and charge state.

High-Resolution Camera

This camera captures images in both X-ray and optical wavelengths, providing detailed visual data of celestial phenomena.

High Energy Transmission Grating Spectrometer

With this instrument, Chandra disperses X-rays into a spectrum. These measurements give insight into the temperature, chemical composition, and other properties of the emitting source.

Notable discoveries besides the cosmic hand

Black Holes

Chandra plays a pivotal role in identifying and studying black holes. It provides detailed images and data about these enigmatic and powerful phenomena, helping scientists understand their properties and behaviors.

Dark Matter

By observing galaxies and galaxy clusters, Chandra has contributed to the study of dark matter, shedding light on its distribution and properties.

Supernova Remnants

Chandra captures spectacular images of supernova remnants. These enable scientists to study the aftermath of star explosions and gain insights into the life cycle of stars.

Legacy and future

Two decades after its launch, Chandra continues to redefine our understanding of the universe. While its mission was initially set for five years, enhancements and careful management extended its life, making it one of NASA’s longest-serving observatories.

Researchers eagerly await the new discoveries Chandra might bring, as it continues to explore the high-energy universe and solve its mysteries.

In summary, the Chandra X-ray Observatory stands as a testament to human curiosity and ingenuity. By giving us a unique view of the universe, it has deepened our understanding of cosmic phenomena, from black holes to the vast interstellar clouds where stars are born.

More about the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE)

The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) has transformed the way scientists observe the universe. As mentioned previously, IXPE detects and measures the polarization of X-ray light, opening a new window into the universe’s most energetic and mysterious phenomena.

Introduction to IXPE

NASA launched the IXPE mission on December 9, 2021. The primary goal of the spacecraft is studying cosmic X-ray sources in polarized light. This unique approach allows researchers to gain insights into the physics and behavior of some of the universe’s most extreme environments. These include areas surrounding black holes, neutron stars, and pulsars.

Key features of the explorer

Gas Pixel Detectors

IXPE uses three identical gas pixel detectors, which enable it to determine the direction of individual incoming X-rays. This innovative technology measures the polarization of X-rays with high precision.

Adjustable Telescope Alignment

The explorer’s telescopes can adjust their alignment. This feature ensures optimal observations and data collection from targeted cosmic sources.

IXPE’s scientific contributions aside from the cosmic hand

Black Hole Observations

IXPE provides critical information about the intense magnetic fields surrounding black holes. By observing how X-rays are polarized near these massive objects, scientists can better understand the processes that produce these emissions.

Neutron Stars and Pulsars

IXPE’s detailed polarimetric observations of neutron stars and pulsars offer insights into their magnetic fields. These insights help scientists decipher the mechanisms by which these dense stellar remnants emit X-rays.

Supernova Remnants

By studying the polarization of X-rays from supernova remnants, IXPE sheds light on the explosion’s mechanics and the subsequent interactions of the ejected material with the surrounding environment.

The future of IXPE

The mission’s initial operational phase was set for two years. However, given its success and potential for further breakthroughs, the scientific community hopes for extended operational periods. IXPE’s observations continue to play a pivotal role in our understanding of high-energy cosmic processes and the environments in which they occur.

In summary, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer stands as a beacon in X-ray astronomy. It offers a fresh perspective on the universe’s energetic phenomena. By delving into the polarization of X-rays, IXPE paves the way for deeper comprehension of cosmic wonders and the fundamental processes powering them.

Image Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford Univ./R. Romani et al.

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