If there are uptight interstellar alien cops trawling through outer space, handing out speeding tickets, this pulsar would be in some serious trouble. The pulsar in question , which presently lurks about 30,000 light years from Earth in the Carina constellation, is pictured at x-ray wavelengths in the image above (this dataset comes from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the ground-based ‘Parkes Radio Telescope‘).
Called IGR J11014-6103 (we’ll simply call it IGR), this object might be the fastest-moving pulsar in our galaxy (maybe even the universe). It’s believed to be so fast, in fact, that if estimated speeds are correct, this little bugger challenges our current models, which fail to explain how (and why) IGR is moving at speeds between 5.4 million and 6.5 million miles per hour. (For comparison, the fastest non controversial pulsar travels around just 3 million miles per hour)
In order to determine why this star is moving so quickly through our galaxy, we must first look at its characteristics and work backward. First thing’s first:
What Is a Pulsar?
Pulsars, simply put, are highly-magnetized stars that form in the same manner as neutron stars: from the core collapse of massive stars. The process begins when the stars has exhausted the entirety of its nuclear fuel supply. Without the energy produced by thermonuclear fusion helping a star balance its weight against the force of gravity, gravity wins out and the star’s core collapses in on itself, triggering a supernova. From this point, one of two things happen: either the collapse continues and the now-defunct star continues to collapse until it becomes a singularity (a black hole), or a process called nuclear degeneracy takes over, whereby it becomes more energetically favorable for protons and electrons to converge, forming neutrons.
“Neutronium,” which can only stable form in the belly of a massive star, is what we call this extreme form of neutron soup. While it’s currently the densest material that has been confirmed, other theoretical forms of matter (like quark degenerate matter) might be even denser.
However, as a general rule of thumb, any form of matter can become incredibly dense if gravity is very strong, but there’s a limit to how dense something can become before it collapses into a singularity.
Pulsars and neutron stars are the bridge between the less-massive white dwarfs and stellar-mass black holes. Yet they differ in the fact that pulsars rotate rapidly (sometimes hundreds of times per second) and spit light and electromagnetic radiation from their magnetic poles. If their rotational axes are pointed towards Earth, we can receive radio wave frequencies that are produced as the star “pulsates.”
By combining images taken in x-ray, infrared and optical light, astronomers were able to determine that a massive star went supernova about 15,000 years ago. After the star expelled its gaseous envelope, it seeded the area with tons of gas and dust debris, which are heated up to several million degrees Kelvin. In the “close up” photo, the green x (taken by Chandra) is far beyond the explosion site, which suggests IGR was likely ejected during the supernova shockwave, and it is racing away from the center of the remnant at millions of miles per hour.
Additionally, the pulsar has a long comet-like tail that spans about 3 light-years across (meaning it’s almost three times as long as our solar system!)
Not all pulsars are capable of traveling at such high speeds, or leaving behind such long trails of emission. The most favored theory says the tail is a form of solar wind, made up of high energy particles produced by the pulsar, but pushed behind it by bow shock (this, in turn, is the result of the pulsar catapulting through space at extremely high speeds).
FYI: If the pulsar (IGR J1104-6103) is moving at a speed of 7 million miles per hour, it could travel around Earth’s equator in approximately 13 seconds!