It's difficult to imagine astronomers ever growing bored of the barrage of incredible events that they get to witness on a weekly basis, peering through their high-tech telescopes or analyzing data coming in from the far reaches of the cosmos. If the data ever does get monotonous, though, here's an image that's sure to reel them right back in again.
What you're looking at in the above picture is a pulsar, a highly magnetized neutron star, that is shooting out of a debris cloud so fast that it's dragging a tail of debris behind it, as if it were a rocket ship blasting off.
The discovery was made using NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and the National Science Foundation's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), and it's a one-of-a-kind type of image that might help us to finally understand why some stars are able to move at such high speeds.
To put the image in perspective, the pulsar at the tip of that debris tail is a remnant of the star that caused the huge cloud in the first place, after it went supernova. And now it's firing away from its spherical birthplace at a speed of 2.5 million miles an hour, on a trajectory that will eventually allow it to bust out of the Milky Way galaxy entirely. Needless to say, this speedracer is one of the fastest-moving stars ever recorded.
"Thanks to its narrow dart-like tail and a fortuitous viewing angle, we can trace this pulsar straight back to its birthplace," said Frank Schinzel, a scientist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, New Mexico. "Further study of this object will help us better understand how these explosions are able to 'kick' neutron stars to such high speed."
The pulsar is currently about 53 light-years from the center of its bubble-like supernova remnant cloud. Immediately after the supernova explosion that sent it firing off, the cloud itself expanded faster than the star was traveling. Over time, however, the cloud's expansion slowed, which allowed the star to catch up and eventually punch through the cloud entirely.
Astronomers aren't sure what causes pulsars to get shot from a cannon in this way, but they suspect it has to do with asymmetries present in the supernova explosion that the shooting stars originate from. Because this pulsar has such a clear trajectory, it ought to allow astronomers to finally put this theory to the test.
"We have more work to do to fully understand what's going on with this pulsar, and it's providing an excellent opportunity to improve our knowledge of supernova explosions and pulsars," Schinzel told the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
More information about this eye-opening discovery can be viewed in the following video: