‘Cosmic cannibals’ expel jets into space at 40 percent the speed of light | Science & Technology

For the first time, astronomers have measured the speed of fast-moving jets in space, crucial to star formation and the distribution of elements needed for life.

The jets of matter, expelled by stars deemed ‘cosmic cannibals’, were measured to travel at over one-third of the speed of light — thanks to a groundbreaking new experiment published in Nature today.

The study sheds new light on these violent processes, making clever use of runaway nuclear explosions on the surface of stars.

Co-Author Jakob van den Eijnden, Warwick Prize Fellow at the Department of Physics, University of Warwick, said: “The explosions occurred on neutron stars, which are incredibly dense and notorious for their enormous gravitational pull that makes them swallow gas from their surroundings — a gravitational pull that is only surpassed by black holes.

“The material, mostly hydrogen from a nearby star that orbits around, swirls towards the collapsed star, falling like snow across its surface. As more and more material rains down, the gravitational field compresses it until a runaway nuclear explosion is initiated. This explosion impacts the jets, that are also shot out from the infalling material and eject particles into space at very high speed.”

The team devised a way of measuring the speed and properties of the jets by comparing X-ray and radio signals picked up by the Australia Telescope Compact Array (owned and operated by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency) and the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Integral satellite.

Co-Author Thomas Russell, National Institute for Astrophysics, INAF, Palermo, Italy, said: “This gave us a perfect experiment. We had a very brief short-lived impulse of extra material that gets shot into the jet and that we can track as it moves down the jet to learn about its speed.”

Jakob van den Eijnden added: “These explosion occur every couple of hours, but you can’t predict exactly when they will happen. So you have to stare at the telescope observations…

 read more www.sciencedaily.com

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