Faraway Neutron Star May Be Fastest Moving Object Ever Discovered

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Most scientists at a young age are told to reach for the stars-but how do you reach for a star that moves at 10 million miles per hour?

Kevin Hurley, a research physicist at the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory may have found such a star, located nearly 20,000 light-years away.

His preliminary results, announced at the American Astronomical Society annual conference on Jan. 9, center on an extremely magnetic star, known as a magnetar.

"We discovered this object back in 1979 and gradually we've been finding out more about it," said Hurley. "It will go on for another year before we start to get the first real answers."

Magnetars are a highly magnetized form of neutron stars-the cores of exploded supernovae. Supernovae, extremely violent and intense stellar explosions, leave cosmic remnants for thousands of years, usually with a neutron star at its center.

"You have a star that exploded which left behind a neutron star- usually you see the aftermath of the explosion in shockwaves which hits the medium around it," said Chryssa Kouveliotou, Senior Research Scientist at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, and member of Hurley's team.

"In the middle, usually, you see the culprit-the neutron star-sometimes when the explosion takes place, it gives a kick to the central star with a certain velocity."

In this case, the magnetar may possibly have a "kick" with a velocity of up to five times higher than any known object.

Magnetars emit a magnetic field much stronger than a refrigerator magnet, which generates a field of nearly 100 Gauss-from a distance of the moon, it would have a powerful pull on any magnetizable object on the Earth, including keys and metal watches. By contrast, the Earth has a magnetic field of 10 Gauss.

Hurley and his team measured the object's gamma rays that it emits naturally last June, and are currently attempting to compare those measurements of radio waves taken in 1998. Fortunately, he had NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory at his disposal.

Launched over two years ago, this space-based telescope can take extremely accurate pictures of gamma rays-a higher-energy form of x-rays.

By using the previous measurements and extrapolating to the distance of pieces of the supernova that exploded from the location of the neutron star, SGR1900+14, Hurley has been able to determine that the star could be travelling up to 10 million miles per hour.

"It's not easy to measure velocities like this," said Hurley. "Astronomers can measure velocities of stars because they shine, and (from that) you can determine their motions. What we've done here is a tour de force, because we're measuring an object that's invisible to optical (wavelengths)-(but) it would be nice to prove that objects do move that fast."


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