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Black Widow Pulsar Vaporizing Stellar Companion

By Belinda McCallum
Epoch Times Staff
Created: October 25, 2012 Last Updated: October 28, 2012
Related articles: Science » Space & Astronomy
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PSR J1311-3430 is the first millisecond pulsar discovered solely by its lighthouse-like gamma-ray emissions (magenta). The system is so compact that it would fit completely inside our sun. This schematic representation shows the sun, the companion's orbit, and the companion at its maximum possible size true to scale; the pulsar has been greatly enlarged in contrast. (SDO/AIA (sun), AEI)

PSR J1311-3430 is the first millisecond pulsar discovered solely by its lighthouse-like gamma-ray emissions (magenta). The system is so compact that it would fit completely inside our sun. This schematic representation shows the sun, the companion's orbit, and the companion at its maximum possible size true to scale; the pulsar has been greatly enlarged in contrast. (SDO/AIA (sun), AEI)

A millisecond pulsar has been identified via its gamma radiation using a new analysis method that allows blind searching for these unusual celestial objects.

Pulsars are highly magnetized, rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit beams of radio waves. Previously, they could only be found via their radio pulses.

Known as PSR J1311-3430, the pulsar is located in the constellation of Centaurus. It is called a “black widow” because it is vaporizing its smaller companion star.

A gamma-ray pulsar’s properties, such as position and spin frequency over time, must be well-defined to identify it.

Its companion had already been seen, allowing limits to be placed on its orbital parameters and position.

“The companion object is small and unusually dense,” says AEI Director Bruce Allen. “It is at least eight times as massive as the planet Jupiter, but has at most 60 percent the planet’s radius.”

PSR J1311-3430 spins 390 times per second. Its companion is about 30 times denser than the sun, and the pulsar is stripping its matter away, thus accelerating its rotation.

“Our discovery is not only a first, it also sets several new records,” explains Bruce Allen.

The stellar pair’s orbital period is 93 minutes, the shortest time of all known binary pulsars, and the system is only 1.4 Earth-moon separations apart, the closest known spacing to date for a pulsar.

The pulsar travels its orbit at minimum 13,000 kilometers (about 8,100 miles) per hour, while its companion is moving at up to 2.8 million kilometers (about 1.8 million miles) per hour.

The findings will be published in Science on Oct. 26.

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