NASA reveals ‘ghostly cosmic hand’ 16,000 light-years from Earth

Is it Halloween in outer space?

NASA has released X-ray images of a dead collapsed star that looks eerily like the bones of a “ghostly cosmic hand.”

The spooky images, released just before Halloween and taken from two of NASA’s X-ray space telescopes, show the remnants of a dead collapsed star that lives on through plumes of particles of energized matter and antimatter. 

The fragments unveil the magnetic field of a remarkable hand-shaped structure in space, located about 16,000 light-years from Earth, according to NASA.

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NASA has combined two telescopes to unveil a magnetic field “bones” in space. The structure consists of the remnants of a dead collapsed star that looks eerily like the bones of a “ghostly cosmic hand.” (X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford Univ./R. Romani et al. (Chandra); NASA/MSFC (IXPE); Infared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DECaPS; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt))

The collapsed star was once a giant star in our Milky Way galaxy but ran out of nuclear fuel to burn around 1,500 years ago. When this happened, the star collapsed onto itself and formed an extremely dense object called a neutron star, scientists say. 

The rotating neutron star along with its strong magnetic fields, known as pulsars, created jets of matter and antimatter that moved away from the poles of the pulsar with an intense wind forming a “pulsar wind nebula,” according to NASA. 

The pulsar wind nebula in this neutron star is known as MSH 15-52 and resembles the bones of a human hand. 

It was first discovered by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in 2001.

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Now, NASA’s newest X-ray telescope, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), has observed MSH 15-52 for about 17 days, the longest it has looked at any single object since it launched in December 2021. 

NASA has combined the telescopes imaging powers to unveil the magnetic field “bones” of the eerie hand-shaped structure in space.

Roger Romani, of Stanford University in California, who led the study, said the IXPE data gives scientists the first map of the magnetic field in the “hand.”

“The charged particles producing the X-rays travel along the magnetic field, determining the basic shape of the nebula, like the bones do in a person’s hand,” Romani said. 

An x-ray generated image of a collapsed star in space that looks like a hand

The nebula is known as MSH 15-52. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford Univ./R. Romani et al. (Chandra); NASA/MSFC (IXPE); Infared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DECaPS; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt)

The IXPE provides information about the electric field orientation of X-rays, determined by the magnetic field of the X-ray source, known as X-ray polarization. 

One interesting feature of MSH 15-52 is a bright X-ray jet directed from the pulsar to the “wrist” at the bottom of the image. The pulsar is located at the base of the “palm” of the nebula. 

The new IXPE data reveals that the polarization at the start of the jet is low, likely because this is a turbulent region with complex, tangled magnetic fields associated with the generation of high-energy particles. By the end of the jet the magnetic field lines appear to straighten and become much more uniform, causing the polarization to become much larger.

These results imply that particles are given an energy boost in complex turbulent regions near the pulsar at the base of the palm, and flow to areas where the magnetic field is uniform along the wrist, fingers and thumb, the scientists said.

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“We’ve uncovered the life history of super energetic matter and antimatter particles around the pulsar,” said co-author Niccolò Di Lalla, also of Stanford. “This teaches us about how pulsars can act as particle accelerators.”

The IXPE has also detected similar magnetic fields for the “Vela” and “Crab” pulsar wind nebulae, which implies that they may be common in these objects, the scientists revealed. 

The images were released days after NASA announced its Juno mission had spotted a haunting looking “face” on Jupiter. 

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