Researchers Catch Nature in the Act of 'Recycling' a Star

UBC astronomer Ingrid Stairs is part of the first international team to observe the transformation of an ordinary, slow-rotating pulsar into a superfast millisecond pulsar—a star with an almost infinitely extended lifespan.

The discovery was made during a large radio sky survey by astrophysicists at McGill University, UBC, West Virginia University, the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and other institutions. The results will be published online by Science on May 21.

McGill astrophysics PhD candidate Anne Archibald and her supervisor, Professor Victoria Kaspi of the McGill Pulsar Group, spotted the pulsar's transformation. "This survey has found many new pulsars, but this one is truly special. It's a very freshly 'recycled' pulsar emerging straight from the recycling plant." said Archibald. The McGill researchers worked with Stairs, Associate Professor with UBC's Astronomy Group, Scott Ransom of NRAO, and others from the collaboration to carry out more observations of this unusual pulsar.

Pulsars are rapidly rotating, highly magnetized neutron stars, the remnants left after massive stars have gone supernovae. Pulsars emit lighthouse-like beams of radio waves that sweep around as the star rotates. Most rotate relatively slowly, ten times a second or less, and their magnetic fields ordinarily slow them down even further over the course of millennia. Millisecond pulsars, however, rotate hundreds of times a second.

"For the first time, we have caught a glimpse at an actual cosmic recycling factory in action," says Stairs, who has been visiting the Australia Telescope National Facility and Swinburne University of Technology this year. "This system gives us an unparalleled cosmic laboratory for studying how millisecond pulsars evolve and get reborn."

"We know normal pulsars typically pulsate in the radio spectrum for one million to ten million years, but eventually they slow down enough to die out," explained Kaspi.

"But a few of these old pulsars get 'recycled' into millisecond pulsars. They end up spinning extremely fast, and then they can pulsate forever. How does nature manage to be so green?"

It has long been theorized that millisecond pulsars are created in double-star systems when matter from the companion star falls into the pulsar’s gravity well and increases the rotation speed, but until now the process has never been observed directly.

The pulsar found by the survey team was observed by an independent, optical research group to have had swirling matter surrounding it roughly a decade ago--the blink of an eye in astronomical time. That group recorded the observation as puzzling, never dreaming that a full-fledged radio pulsar would emerge.

"Imagine a ping-pong ball in the bathtub, and then you take the plug out of the drain," explained Archibald. "All the water swirling around the ping-pong ball suddenly makes it spin a lot faster than when it was just bobbing on the surface."

"We’ve seen systems that are undergoing spin-up, because when the matter is falling in, the stars get really bright in X-rays and they’re easy to see," she added. "But we've never seen radio pulsations from these stars during the process of spin-up. At last we’ve found a true radio pulsar that shows direct evidence for having just been recycled."

The sky survey used the Robert C. Byrd radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia to observe nearly a third of the celestial sphere.

Other major contributors to this study include Dr. Maura McLaughlin and Dr. Duncan Lorimer of West Virginia University and Dr. Scott Ransom of NRAO. In addition to the GBT, the scientists also used the Westerbork radio telescope in the Netherlands, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and the Parkes radio telescope in Australia during their study.

For the first time, we have caught a glimpse at an actual cosmic recycling factory in action. This system gives us an unparalleled cosmic laboratory for studying how millisecond pulsars evolve.

Chris Balma
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