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NASA’s X-Ray Telescopes Uncover the Skeleton of a Cosmic Hand

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In a captivating discovery, NASA’s X-ray space telescopes have delved into the intricate magnetic field structures of a celestial formation resembling a hand, offering insights into the behavior of a collapsed star. This revelation, combining data from Chandra and the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), portrays the remnants of a massive star that, after exhausting its nuclear fuel, transformed into a neutron star.

The stunning image of this cosmic hand, referred to as MSH 15-52, tells a story that began around 1,500 years ago when a massive star in our Milky Way galaxy met its demise. When the star exhausted its nuclear fuel, it underwent gravitational collapse, giving rise to a neutron star, an incredibly dense celestial body.

These neutron stars, especially those with potent magnetic fields known as pulsars, serve as laboratories for probing extreme physics conditions that are unattainable on Earth. Young pulsars can emit jets of matter and antimatter from their poles, accompanied by a fierce wind, forming a phenomenon known as a “pulsar wind nebula.”

The initial observation of this unique hand-shaped structure, MSH 15-52, was made in 2001 by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. At its core lies the pulsar PSR B1509-58, positioned at the “palm” of the nebula, located a staggering 16,000 light-years away from Earth.

The latest addition to NASA’s X-ray telescope family, IXPE, has now cast its gaze upon MSH 15-52 for approximately 17 days, marking the longest observation of a single object since its launch in December 2021.

Roger Romani, the leader of the study from Stanford University, explained, “The IXPE data gives us the first map of the magnetic field in the ‘hand’. The charged particles generating the X-rays follow the magnetic field’s path, dictating the nebula’s fundamental structure, much like the role of bones in a human hand.”

IXPE’s capability to reveal X-ray polarization, a measure of the electric field orientation, plays a pivotal role in this discovery. In numerous areas of MSH 15-52, the polarization level is notably high, reaching the theoretical maximum. This indicates that the magnetic field in these regions is exceptionally straight and uniform, with minimal turbulence within the pulsar wind nebula.

Josephine Wong, a co-author of the study, likened this application of X-rays to medical diagnostics, noting that it uncovers hidden information.

One intriguing feature of MSH 15-52 is a conspicuous X-ray jet extending from the pulsar towards the “wrist” of the cosmic hand. The new IXPE data reveals that the jet’s polarization is low at its origin, likely due to the turbulent, complex magnetic fields associated with the generation of high-energy particles. However, as the jet progresses, the magnetic field lines appear to straighten and become more uniform, resulting in a significant increase in polarization.

These findings suggest that energetic matter and antimatter particles receive an energy boost in turbulent areas near the pulsar, subsequently flowing towards regions where the magnetic field is more uniform along the “wrist,” “fingers,” and “thumb.”

Niccolò Di Lalla, another co-author, described this discovery as an unveiling of the life history of highly energetic matter and antimatter particles around pulsars, shedding light on how pulsars function as particle accelerators.

Remarkably, IXPE has identified similar magnetic field structures in the Vela and Crab pulsar wind nebulae, hinting at their potential prevalence in these celestial objects.

This groundbreaking revelation showcases the invaluable insights and discoveries facilitated by NASA’s X-ray telescopes, enabling humanity to gain a deeper understanding of the enigmatic universe.

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