Astronomers were shocked when the dusty remains of an exploded star, the Crab Nebula, unleashed a surprising blast of gamma rays, the highest-energy light in the Universe.
The outburst, which was similar to an enormous 'superflare' five times more powerful than any flare previously seen from the object, was first detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope on April 12 and lasted six days.
The nebula, which is the wreckage of an exploded star whose light reached Earth in 1054, is one of the most studied objects in the sky. The Crab Nebula is composed mainly of the remnant of a supernova.
At the heart of an expanding gas cloud lies what's left of the original star's core, a superdense neutron star that spins 30 times a second. With each rotation, the star swings intense beams of radiation toward Earth, creating the pulsed emission characteristic of spinning neutron stars (also known as pulsars), NASA said in a statement.
Apart from these pulses, astrophysicists regarded the Crab Nebula to be a virtually constant source of high-energy radiation. But in January, scientists associated with several orbiting observatories -- including NASA's Fermi, Swift and Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer -- reported long-term brightness changes at X-ray energies.
The Crab's high-energy emissions are thought to be the result of physical processes that tap into the neutron star's rapid spin. Theorists generally agree the flares must arise within about one-third of a light-year from the neutron star, but efforts to locate them more precisely have proven unsuccessful so far.
Scientists think that the flares occur as the intense magnetic field near the pulsar undergoes sudden restructuring. Such changes can accelerate particles like electrons to velocities near the speed of light. As these high-speed electrons interact with the magnetic field, they emit gamma rays in a process known as synchrotron emission.
To account for the observed emission, scientists say that the electrons must have energies 100 times greater than can be achieved in any particle accelerator on Earth. This makes them the highest-energy electrons known to be associated with any cosmic source.
These superflares are the most intense outbursts we've seen to date, and they are all extremely puzzling events. We think they are caused by sudden rearrangements of the magnetic field not far from the neutron star, but exactly where that's happening remains a mystery, said Alice Harding at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Based on the rise and fall of gamma rays during the April outbursts, scientists estimate that the size of the emitting region must be comparable in size to the solar system. If circular, the region must be smaller than roughly twice Pluto's average distance from the sun.
NASA's Fermi is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.
The Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts.