Scientists using the H.E.S.S. observatory in Namibia have detected the highest energy gamma rays ever from a dead star called a pulsar. The energy of these gamma rays clocked in at 20 tera-electronvolts, or about ten trillion times the energy of visible light. This observation is hard to reconcile with the theory of the production of such pulsed gamma rays, as the international team reports in the journal Nature Astronomy.
Pulsars are the left-over corpses of stars that spectacularly exploded in a supernova. The explosions leave behind a tiny, dead star with a diameter of just some 20 kilometres, rotating extremely fast and endowed with an enormous magnetic field. “These dead stars are almost entirely made up of neutrons and are incredibly dense: a teaspoon of their material has a mass of more than five billion tonnes, or about 900 times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza,” explains H.E.S.S. scientist Emma de Oña Wilhelmi, a co-author of the publication working at DESY.
Pulsars emit rotating beams of electromagnetic radiation, somewhat like cosmic lighthouses. If their beam sweeps across our solar system, we see flashes of radiation at regular time intervals. These flashes, also called pulses of radiation, can be searched for in different energy bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. Scientists think that the source of this radiation are fast electrons produced and accelerated in the pulsar’s magnetosphere, while traveling towards its periphery. The magnetosphere is made up of plasma and electromagnetic fields that surround and co-rotate with the star. “On their outward journey, the electrons acquire energy and release it in the form of the observed radiation beams,” says Bronek Rudak from the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center (CAMK PAN) in Poland, also a co-author.
The Vela pulsar, located in the Southern sky in the constellation Vela (sail of the ship), is the brightest pulsar in the radio band of the electromagnetic spectrum and the brightest…