Missing link found between X-ray and radio pulsars

Astronomers using ESA’s Integral and XMM-Newton space observatories have caught a fast-spinning ‘millisecond pulsar’ in a crucial evolutionary phase for the first time, as it swings between emitting pulses of X-rays and radio waves.

Pulsars are spinning, magnetised neutron stars, the dead cores of massive stars that exploded as a dramatic supernova after having burned up their fuel. As they spin, they sweep out pulses of electromagnetic radiation hundreds of times per second, like beams from a lighthouse. This tells us that the spin period of the neutron stars can be as short as a few milliseconds.

Pulsars are classified according to how their emission is generated. For example, radio pulsars are powered by the rotation of their magnetic field, while X-ray pulsars are fuelled by the accretion of material siphoned off from a companion star.

Theory holds that initially slowly rotating neutron stars with a low-mass companion are spun up as matter accretes onto them from a surrounding disc fed by the companion. X-rays are emitted as the accreting material heats up as it falls onto the neutron star.

After a billion years or so, the rate of accretion drops and the pulsars are thought to switch on again as a radio-emitting millisecond pulsar.

There is thought to be an intermediate phase during which they swing back and forth between the two states several times, but until now, there has been no direct and conclusive evidence for this transitional phase.

Thanks to the combined forces of ESA’s Integral and XMM-Newton space observatories, along with follow-up observations by NASA’s Swift and Chandra satellites and by ground-based radio telescopes, scientists have finally caught a pulsar in the act of changing between the two evolutionary steps.

“The search is finally over: with our discovery of a millisecond pulsar that, within only a few weeks, switched from being accretion-powered and X-ray-bright to rotation-powered and bright in radio waves, we finally have the missing link in pulsar evolution,” says Alessandro Papitto from the Institute of Space Sciences in Barcelona, Spain, who led the research published this week in Nature.

The object, identified as IGR J18245-2452, was first detected in X-rays on 28 March 2013 by Integral in the globular cluster M28, which lies in the constellation Sagittarius.

Observations by XMM-Newton determined the pulsar’s spin period to be 3.9 milliseconds, meaning that it rotates on its axis more than 250 times every second, clearly identifying it as an X-ray-bright millisecond pulsar.

But comparing its spin period and other key characteristics with those of other known pulsars in M28 showed it matched perfectly those of another pulsar that had been observed in 2006 – but only at radio wavelengths.

Source / Author: ESA