Key Takeaways:

  1. A ‘Black-Widow’ pulsar, part of a rare cannibalistic binary system, has been found just 3,000 light-years from Earth.
  2. Black-widow binaries involve pulsars, which are remnants of massive stars, stealing matter from companion stars, emitting intense X-rays and gamma rays.
  3. The newfound black-widow binary, named ZTF J1406+1222, boasts the tightest orbit known, completing an orbital dance in just 62 minutes.
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists, led by Kevin Burdge, discovered ZTF J1406+1222 using data from the Zwicky Transient Facility.
  5. This system, considered a candidate due to the absence of detected X-rays and gamma rays, poses unique mysteries to astronomers.
An artist’s impression of a black-widow pulsar tearing material from a companion star. (Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

In a thrilling astronomical revelation, a ‘Black-Widow’ pulsar, situated a mere 3,000 light-years from Earth, has been uncovered, illuminating a rare and intriguing tale of celestial cannibalism.

These black-widow binaries, of which approximately two dozen exist in our Milky Way galaxy, involve pulsars, which are the remnants of massive stars that exploded in a supernova, voraciously devouring matter from their companion stars. The outcome is a mesmerizing cosmic dance, unleashing torrents of X-rays and gamma rays, eventually eroding and obliterating the unfortunate companion.

The recently discovered ‘Black-Widow’ binary, christened ZTF J1406+1222, bears the distinction of being the tightest binary of its kind, with the pulsar and its companion engaging in an orbital tango that spans a mere 62 minutes. A third star in the system, though distantly orbiting every 10,000 years, adds a captivating dimension to this celestial ballet.

The remarkable discovery is credited to a team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by Kevin Burdge, who pored over data acquired by the Zwicky Transient Facility at the Palomar Observatory in California. As matter accumulates on the pulsar’s surface, it imparts additional angular momentum, causing the pulsar to whirl hundreds of times per second, earning it the moniker of “millisecond pulsar.”

The pulsar’s acceleration triggers an outpouring of radiation, heating the companion star’s pulsar-facing side. This discrepancy in brightness between the two hemispheres allows astronomers to observe periodic fluctuations as the star alternately brightens and dims during its orbit with the pulsar.

The innovative approach that led to this discovery initially involved identifying known black-widow binaries using the brightness contrast between the two sides of the companion star. Subsequently, while sifting through data from the Zwicky Transient Facility, the team stumbled upon a mysterious celestial object that varied in brightness by a factor of 13 every hour – ZTF J1406+1222. Archival data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia astrometric mission corroborated the existence of the third star.

Curiously, ZTF J1406+1222 does not exhibit the characteristic X-ray and gamma-ray emissions typical of black-widow binaries, making it a candidate rather than a confirmed discovery. As Kevin Burdge noted, “Everything seems to point to it being a black-widow binary, but there are a few weird things about it, so it’s possible it’s something new entirely.”

Astronomers believe that most black-widow binaries originate within globular clusters, but if these clusters venture too close to the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, gravitational forces can tear them apart, scattering their stars throughout the galaxy. This complex birth scenario suggests that ZTF J1406+1222 may have roamed the Milky Way for eons, possibly longer than our Sun’s existence.

This groundbreaking revelation is documented in a Nature paper published online on May, offering a tantalizing glimpse into the captivating and ever-mysterious universe beyond our planet.

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