Astronomers now prepare to witness high-energy cosmic fireworks set to occur in early 2018 when a city-sized stellar remnant encounters one of the Milky Way's brightest stars.
The light show will happen when the pulsar, known as J2032+4127, or J2032, collides with its companion star. The pulsar, which was discovered by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is the crushed core of a giant star that exploded as a supernova. The magnetized ball is about the size of Washington, weighs nearly twice the mass of the sun and spins seven times per second.
Although pulsars are often found through radio emissions, J2032 was detected through pulses of gamma rays, the most energetic form of light, using Fermi's Large Area Telescope (LAT). Since J2032 was discovered, scientists have been monitoring it and noticed something peculiar.
University of Manchester physics professor Andrew Lyne said that they observed strange variations in the rotation and the manner at which the rotation of the pulsar slows down as these behaviors were not previously observed in other isolated pulsars.
Lyne said that they later realized that the oddities they have observed were caused by the pulsar's motion around another star.
The massive star that tugs on J2032 was dubbed MT91 213 and is classified as a Be star. Such stars drive stellar winds and are embedded in large disks of dust and gas. MT91 213 is 15 times more massive than the sun and shines 10,000 times brighter.
Following its elongated orbit that lasts a quarter of a century, J2032 passes closest to its companion star once for each circuit. It will whip around its partner star in early 2018 and will plunge through the surrounding disk, a phenomenon that could trigger astrophysical fireworks. The cosmic event could help scientists measure the gravity, stellar wind, magnetic field and disk properties of the massive star.
"The pulsar is currently on the near side of, and accelerating towards, the Be star, with an orbital period of 20-30 yr," the researchers reported in their study, which was published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on June 16. "The next periastron is well constrained to occur in early 2018, providing an opportunity to observe enhanced high-energy emission as seen in other Be-star binary systems."
Below is the U.S. space agency's video on what the phenomenon will look like: