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Geriatric Pulsar Still Kicking

For Release: February 26, 2009

CXC

PSR J0108-1431
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Penn State/G.Pavlov et al.; Optical: ESO/VLT/UCL/R.Mignani et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss.
Press Image and Caption

The oldest isolated pulsar ever detected in X-rays has been found with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. This very old and exotic object turns out to be surprisingly active.

The pulsar, PSR J0108-1431 (J0108 for short) is about 200 million years old. Among isolated pulsars -- ones that have not been spun-up in a binary system -- it is over 10 times older than the previous record holder with an X-ray detection. At a distance of 770 light years, it is one of the nearest pulsars known.

Pulsars are born when stars that are much more massive than the Sun collapse in supernova explosions, leaving behind a small, incredibly weighty core, known as a neutron star. At birth, these neutron stars, which contain the densest material known in the Universe, are spinning rapidly, up to a hundred revolutions per second. As the rotating beams of their radiation are seen as pulses by distant observers, similar to a lighthouse beam, astronomers call them "pulsars".

Astronomers observe a gradual slowing of the rotation of the pulsars as they radiate energy away. Radio observations of J0108 show it to be one of the oldest and faintest pulsars known, spinning only slightly faster than one revolution per second.

The surprise came when a team of astronomers led by George Pavlov of Penn State University observed J0108 in X-rays with Chandra. They found that it glows much brighter in X-rays than was expected for a pulsar of such advanced years.

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