Major Findings

  1. A wind nebula has been found around a magnetar star
  2. With this monumental discovery, more can be learned about magnetar formation

An Unprecedented Discovery

For the first time, researchers have detected a wind nebula orbiting a rare type of neutron star known as a magnetar. Nebulae are thick clouds of dust, hydrogen, helium, and ionized gases that create colorful light shows in the night sky. They often form as a result of stellar death – after a massive explosion known as a supernova. The cores that remain are extremely dense objects known as neutron stars. These small stars, with a radius of only about seven miles, have masses larger than the Sun. If you were to take a piece of a neutron star the size of a sugar cube, it would weigh one hundred million tons on Earth.

Wind Nebulae From Pulsars

When neutron stars are first born, they spin rapidly – up to 700 times a second. (See the publication by Hessels et al). These young neutron stars emit beams of electromagnetic radiation. The fast rotation rate, coupled with radiation emissions, give them their name – pulsars. When astronomers observe nebulae, like the Crab Nebula, pulsars are often at the center. The winds of charged particles that they emit are what propel the ionized gas outward.

Mysterious Magnetars

Magnetars are another powerful type of neutron star. These mysterious objects have extremely vigorous magnetic fields. X-ray and gamma ray emissions often originate from these stars. Unlike other neutron stars, magnetars rotate slower, only once every few seconds. While the Earth has a magnetic field of 30 – 60 microtesla, magnetars boast fields of upwards of 1011 tesla. While the formation is still mysterious, a double star interaction may play a key role.

For the first time, astronomers have found a wind nebula surrounding a magnetar, rather than a pulsar. The newly discovered wind nebula surrounds the magnetar Swift JI834.9-0846. Using observations from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory, the lopsided, 15 light-year across, glow was determined to be a wind nebula.

New observations show a wind nebula formed around a magnetar

One of a Kind?

As of now, only 29 of the known 2,600 neutron stars are classified as magnetars. If the process is similar to pulsars, then 10% of the magnetar’s rotational energy loss would be needed to power the nebula’s. By understanding the origins to this nebula, scientists may uncover much needed clues to the origin and evolution of magnetars.

“Right now, we don't know how J1834.9 developed and continues to maintain a wind nebula, which until now was a structure only seen around young pulsars.”

-George Younes, George Washington University (lead author)

The full study is to be published in the Astrophysical Journal.