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Tour: Tiny Star Unleashes Gargantuan Beam of Matter and Antimatter

Astronomers have imaged a beam of matter and antimatter that is 40 trillion miles long with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. The record-breaking beam is powered by a pulsar, a rapidly rotating collapsed star with a strong magnetic field. With its tremendous scale, this beam may help explain the surprisingly large numbers of positrons, the antimatter counterparts to electrons, throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers first discovered the beam, or filament, in 2020, but they did not know its full length because it extended beyond the edge of the Chandra detector. New Chandra observations by the same pair of researchers taken in February and November 2021 show the beam is about three times as long as originally seen. The filament spans about half the diameter of the full Moon on the sky, making it the longest one from a pulsar as seen from Earth.

Even though the pulsar is only 10 miles across, it has created a structure so big that astronomers can see it from thousands of light years away. To put it another way, if the beam stretched from New York to Los Angeles the pulsar would be about 100 times smaller than the tiniest object visible to the naked eye keeping the same relative size. The pulsar is named PSR J2030+4415, or J2030 for short, and is located about 1,600 light years from Earth. This city-sized object is spinning around about three times a second, faster than most ceiling fans.

This pulsar may be doing more than racking up some impressive superlatives. It could help scientists solve open questions around antimatter in space. The vast majority of the Universe consists of ordinary matter rather than antimatter. Scientists, however, continue to find evidence for relatively large numbers of positrons, or antimatter electrons, in detectors on Earth. Where does this antimatter come from? The researchers in the new Chandra study of J2030 think that pulsars like it may be one answer. As these objects travel through space, some of the antimatter particles may be leaking out into the Galaxy.

There are still many more questions that scientists need to answer when it comes to the mysteries surrounding antimatter in space. This latest Chandra result may be an important — or at least lengthy — step in that direction.

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