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Spitzer Telescope reveals jets of matter around dead star

Published: 
27 June 2006

A team of scientists, including researchers in the University of Southampton's School of Physics and Astronomy, have shown that black holes are not the only known objects in the universe to produce infrared light from beams of particles being shot into space at nearly the speed of light.

Previously, these steady 'relativistic jets' were only seen from black holes which form part of a black hole X-ray binary, a system containing a black hole orbited by a normal star which is so close that the black hole's gravity can peel off the outer part of the normal star and suck in its gas through an accretion disk or disk of matter.

Using the extremely sensitive infrared Spitzer Space Telescope recently launched by NASA, the team discovered one of these steady jets of matter coming from a neutron star (a super-dense type of dead star) in an X-ray binary system. For many years scientists have debated whether there was something unique to black holes that fuelled relativistic jets. It is now clear that the jets must be fuelled by something that both black holes and neutron stars share.

Neutron stars form in the death knells of massive stars, when the pressure at the centre of the star is so large that the electrons and protons of normal matter combine to form a star made almost entirely of neutrons. Not quite dense enough to be black holes, they have masses slightly larger than the Sun's, but diameters about the size of a city, making them as dense as the nuclei of atoms.

Dr Thomas Maccarone, of the University of Southampton, explains: "Jets of matter shot off by black holes are usually observed with a radio telescope which enables astronomers to isolate the jet from everything else in the system. However, observing a neutron star's jets with a radio telescope would take many hours because the jets are very faint. The Spitzer Space Telescope sees light which is redder than the reddest colours visible by the human eye and also redder than the light given off by normal stars."

Using the Spitzer Telescope, the researchers were therefore able to detect the faint jet of a particular neutron star, 4U 0614+091, in minutes even though it is located about 10,000 light-years away in the constellation Orion. This signal would have taken almost a day to detect on the most powerful radio telescopes on Earth. The Spitzer Telescope also helped the team infer details about the jet's geometry. The team's data indicates that the presence of an accretion disk and an intense gravitational field may be all that is needed to create and fuel a jet of matter.

Dr Maccarone continues: "For the past 25 years, astronomers have debated the importance of a black hole in jet production. By comparing the behaviour of the relativistic jets seen from neutron star X-ray binaries and from black hole X-ray binaries, astronomers have hoped to compare neutron stars and black holes directly and possibly to see whether these jets are extracting the black holes' rotational energy. This discovery blazes the trail for future studies which should help reveal the nature of relativistic jets."

Notes for editors

  1. A computer-generated visualisation of a black hole or neutron star X-ray binary system is available from Media Relations on request.  The image was produced using a visualisation tool provided by Rob Hynes of the Louisiana State University, USA.
  2. The research findings are published in the 20 May 2006 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters in a paper by Dr Thomas Maccarone, Professor Rob Fender and David Russell, a PhD student, University of Southampton; Dr Simone Migliari and Dr John Tomsick, University of California San Diego; Dr Elena Gallo, University of California Santa Barbara, and Dr Gijs Nelemans, Radboud Universiteit in Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
  3. The University of Southampton is one of the UK's top 10 research universities, with a global reputation for excellence in both teaching and research.  With first-rate opportunities and facilities across a wide range of subjects in science and engineering, health, arts and humanities, the University has around 20,000 students and 5000 staff at its campuses in Southampton and Winchester. Its annual turnover is in the region of £287 million.
    Southampton is recognised internationally for its leading-edge research in engineering, science, computer science and medicine, and for its strong enterprise agenda. It is home to world-leading research centres, including the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton; the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research; the Optoelectronics Research Centre; the Textile Conservation Centre; the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease; and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies.

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