Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Rare slow-spinning star reveals space oddity

Astronomers have discovered a strange spinning star that appears to be older than the explosion that gave birth to it, scientists say. The star is a pulsar, a rotating, super-dense core left behind after a massive star goes supernova. This pulsar, known as SXP 1062, is spinning quite slowly, suggesting an advanced age.

But the pulsar can't be as old as it looks, because the star probably exploded less than 40,000 years ago, researchers said. They've just now begun delving into this newly discovered cosmic mystery.

A pulsar is born

Pulsars are created after supernova explosions, when a star's remnant collapses and becomes so dense that protons and electrons squish together to form neutrons. [ Supernova Photos: Great Images of Star Explosions ]

Conservation of angular momentum causes these newly formed, city-size neutron stars to rotate, often extremely rapidly. They're called pulsars because this rotation makes their light appear to pulse at regular intervals.

Astronomers feel fortunate to have detected SXP 1062.

"Not many pulsars have been observed within their supernova remnant, and this is the first clear example of such a pair in the [Small Magellanic Cloud]," study leader Vincent Hénault-Brunet, of the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.

The Small Magellanic Cloud is one of the satellite galaxies of the Milky Way.

A second team, led by Frank Haberl of the Max-Planck Institute in Germany, independently confirmed Hénault-Brunet's findings that the leftover supernova debris is between 10,000 and 40,000 years old.

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