Nov 28, 2007

Chandra Discovers a Cosmic Cannonball

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November 28, 2007: Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have discovered one of the fastest stars ever seen. It's a "cosmic cannonball" that is challenging theories to explain its blistering speed.

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The name of the star is RX J0822-4300. It's a neutron star created by the Puppis A supernova explosion about 3700 years ago. Three Chandra observations clearly show the neutron star moving away from the center of the blast. Speed: 3 million mph! At this rate, RX J0822-4300 is destined to escape the Milky Way just millions of years from now.

Right: Chandra X-ray Observatory images of "cannonball star" RX J0822-4300. [More]

"This neutron star has got a one-way ticket out of the Galaxy," says Robert Petre of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, one of the study's co-authors. "Astronomers have seen other stars being flung out of the Milky Way, but few as fast as this."


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Although the star is moving extremely rapidly, its motion is not easy to see, notes lead author Frank Winkler of Middlebury College in Vermont. "The star is so far away that the motion we see in five years is less than the height of the numerals in the date on a penny held 100 yards away. It's remarkable, and a real testament to the power of Chandra, that such a tiny angle can be measured."

This isn't the first time astronomers have found million-mph stars. So-called "hypervelocity stars" have been previously discovered shooting out of the Milky Way with speeds around one million miles per hour. One key difference between RX J0822-4300 and these other reported galactic escapees is the source of their speed. Hypervelocity stars are thought to have been ejected by interactions with a supermassive black hole in the Galaxy's center, which can act as a sort of "gravitational slingshot." This neutron star, by contrast, was flung into motion by a supernova. Data suggest the explosion was lop-sided, kicking the neutron star in one direction and the debris from the explosion in the other.

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Above: A composite image showing the off-center location of RX J0822-4300 in the Puppis A supernova remnant. [More]

The breakneck speed of the Puppis A neutron star is not easily explained, however, by even the most sophisticated supernova explosion models. "The puzzle about this cosmic cannonball is how nature can make such a powerful cannon," says Winkler. "The velocity might be explained by an unusually energetic explosion," but researchers remain unsure.

It's a high-speed mystery—courtesy of Chandra.

The research by Winkler and Petre was published in the November 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls science and flight operations from the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

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Other recent work on RX J0822-4300 was published by C.Y. Hui and Wolfgang Becker, both from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich, in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics in late 2006. Using two of the three Chandra observations reported in the Winkler paper and a different analysis technique, the Hui group found a speed for RX J0822-4300 that is about two-thirds as fast, but with larger reported margins of error.

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