Evidence of a newly born pulsar has been obtained in observations of Supernova 1987A, giving scientists a "once-in-a-lifetime" chance to research the development of the mysterious space objects, University of California researchers announced Wednesday.
Supernova 1987A, which can be seen only in the Southern Hemisphere, is a giant exploding star in the Magellanic Cloud in the galaxy closest to Earth's own Milky Way. The birth of the supernova, called by scientists the most spectacular such object to be observed in almost 400 years, made headlines in early 1987.A pulsar is a superdense sphere of neutrons less than a few miles in diameter but with a magnetic field trillions of times more powerful than the Earth's.
The observation of the pulsar created in the supernova's explosion was made by a team of scientists from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and other groups on the night of Jan. 18 at the 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American observatory in Chile, where the international scientific team had installed detectors last year.
The detectors count photons, or light units, emitted from the supernova to detect minute fluctuations in brightness.
Astrophysicist Carl Pennypacker of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory said that during seven hours of observation, the pulsar showed a three-fold increase in brightness.
He called the pulsar the fastest ever found. It spun on its axis about 2,000 times a second and threw out an intense "searchlight beam" of light with each rotation.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the `birthmarks' of a new pulsar," Pennypacker said. "By detecting and observing it so early in its cycle, we may be able to learn not only how pulsars are born, but also about the structure of the `ejects' - the cloud of heavy elements that is thrown out of the core during the supernova explsion."
Unexpectedly, he said, the frequency of the light emitted by the pulsar varied in a regular pattern. Pennypacker said this might indicate that the pulsar was a double system, with a smaller object rotating around a larger twin.