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ALMA finds possible sign of neutron star in supernova 1987A

Two teams of astronomers have made a compelling case in the 33-year-old mystery surrounding Supernova 1987A. Based on observations of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and a theoretical follow-up study, the scientists provide new insight for the argument that a neutron star is hiding deep inside the remains of the exploded star. This would be the youngest neutron star known to date.

 

Supernova 1987A
This artist’s illustration of Supernova 1987A shows the dusty inner regions of the exploded star’s remnants (red), in which a neutron star might be hiding. This inner region is contrasted with the outer shell (blue), where the energy from the supernova is colliding (green) with the envelope of gas ejected from the star prior to its powerful detonation. Credits: NRAO/AUI/NSF, B. Saxton

Ever since astronomers witnessed one of the brightest explosions of a star in the night sky, creating Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A), they have been searching for a compact object that should have formed in the leftovers from the blast.

Because particles known as neutrinos were detected on Earth on the day of the explosion (23 February 1987), astronomers expected that a neutron star had formed in the collapsed center of the star. But when scientists could not find any evidence for that star, they started to wonder whether it subsequently collapsed into a black hole instead. For decades the scientific community has been eagerly awaiting a signal from this object that has been hiding behind a very thick cloud of dust.

The “blob”

Supernova 1987A
Extremely high-resolution ALMA images revealed a hot “blob” in the dusty core of Supernova 1987A (inset), which could be the location of the missing neutron star. The red color shows dust and cold gas in the center of the supernova remnant, taken at radio wavelengths with ALMA. The green and blue hues reveal where the expanding shock wave from the exploded star is colliding with a ring of material around the supernova. The green represents the glow of visible light, captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The blue color reveals the hottest gas and is based on data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The ring was initially made to glow by the flash of light from the original explosion. Over subsequent years the ring material has brightened considerably as the explosion’s shock wave slams into it. Credits: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), P. Cigan and R. Indebetouw; NRAO/AUI/NSF, B. Saxton; NASA/ESA

Recently, observations from the ALMA radio telescope provided the first indication of the missing neutron star after the explosion. Extremely high-resolution images revealed a hot “blob” in the dusty core of SN 1987A, which is brighter than its surroundings and matches the suspected location of the neutron star.

“We were very surprised to see this warm blob made by a thick cloud of dust in the supernova remnant,” said Mikako Matsuura from Cardiff University and a member of the team that found the blob with ALMA. “There has to be something in the cloud that has heated up the dust and which makes it shine. That’s why we suggested that there is a neutron star hiding inside the dust cloud.”

Even though Matsuura and her team were excited about this result, they wondered about the brightness of the blob. “We thought that the neutron star might be too bright to exist, but then Dany Page and his team published a study that indicated that the neutron star can indeed be this bright because it is so very young,” said Matsuura.

Dany Page is an astrophysicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who has been studying SN 1987A from the start. “I was halfway through my PhD when the supernova happened,” he said, “it was one of the biggest events in my life that made me change the course of my career to try to solve this mystery. It was like a modern holy grail.”

The theoretical study by Page and his team, published today in The Astrophysical Journal, strongly supports the suggestion made by the ALMA team that a neutron star is powering the dust blob. “In spite of the supreme complexity of a supernova explosion and the extreme conditions reigning in the interior of a neutron star, the detection of a warm blob of dust is a confirmation of several predictions,” Page explained.

These predictions were the location and the temperature of the neutron star. According to supernova computer models, the explosion has “kicked away” the neutron star from its birthplace with a speed of hundreds of kilometers per second (tens of times faster than the fastest rocket). The blob is exactly at the place where astronomers think the neutron star would be today. And the temperature of the neutron star, which was predicted to be around 5 million degrees Celsius, provides enough energy to explain the brightness of the blob.

Not a pulsar or a black hole

Contrary to common expectations, the neutron star is likely not a pulsar. “A pulsar’s power depends on how fast it spins and on its magnetic field strength, both of which would need to have very finely tuned values to match the observations,” said Page, “while the thermal energy emitted by the hot surface of the young neutron star naturally fits the data.”

“The neutron star behaves exactly like we expected,” added James Lattimer of Stony Brook University in New York, and a member of Page’s research team. Lattimer has also followed SN 1987A closely, having published prior to SN 1987A predictions of a supernova’s neutrino signal that subsequently matched the observations. “Those neutrinos suggested that a black hole never formed, and moreover it seems difficult for a black hole to explain the observed brightness of the blob. We compared all possibilities and concluded that a hot neutron star is the most likely explanation.”

This neutron star is a 25 km wide, extremely hot ball of ultra-dense matter. A teaspoon of its material would weigh more than all the buildings within New York City combined. Because it can only be 33 years old, it would be the youngest neutron star ever found. The second youngest neutron star that we know of is located in the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A and is 330 years old.

Only a direct picture of the neutron star would give definite proof that it exists, but for that astronomers may need to wait a few more decades until the dust and gas in the supernova remnant become more transparent.

Detailed ALMA images

This colorful, multiwavelength image of the intricate remains of Supernova 1987A is produced with data from three different observatories. The red color shows dust and cold gas in the center of the supernova remnant, taken at radio wavelengths with ALMA. The green and blue hues reveal where the expanding shock wave from the exploded star is colliding with a ring of material around the supernova. The green represents the glow of visible light, captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The blue color reveals the hottest gas and is based on data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The ring was initially made to glow by the flash of light from the original explosion. Over subsequent years the ring material has brightened considerably as the explosion’s shock wave slams into it. Credits: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), P. Cigan and R. Indebetouw; NRAO/AUI/NSF, B. Saxton; NASA/ESA

Even though many telescopes have made images of SN 1987A, none of them have been able to observe its core with such high precision as ALMA. Earlier (3-D) observations with ALMA already showed the types of molecules found in the supernova remnant and confirmed that it produced massive amounts of dust.

“This discovery builds upon years of ALMA observations, showing the core of the supernova in more and more detail thanks to the continuing improvements to the telescope and data processing,” said Remy Indebetouw of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the University of Virginia, who has been a part of the ALMA imaging team.

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This research is presented in two papers:

ALMA observation of the “blob”: “High Angular Resolution ALMA Images of Dust and Molecules in the SN 1987A Ejecta”, by P. Cigan et al., The Astrophysical Journalhttps://doi.org/10.3847/1538-4357/ab4b46

Theoretical study favoring a neutron star: “NS 1987A in SN 1987A”, by D. Page et al., The Astrophysical Journalhttps://doi.org/10.3847/1538-4357/ab93c2

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

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Press release on Supernova 1987A from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) found quasi-periodic flickers in millimeter-waves from the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius (Sgr) A*. The team interpreted these blinks to be due to the rotation of radio spots circling the supermassive black hole with an orbit radius smaller than that of Mercury. This is an interesting clue to investigate space-time with extreme gravity.

“It has been known that Sgr A* sometimes flares up in millimeter wavelength,” tells Yuhei Iwata, the lead author of the paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and a graduate student at Keio University, Japan. “This time, using ALMA, we obtained high-quality data of radio-wave intensity variation of Sgr A* for 10 days, 70 minutes per day. Then we found two trends: quasi-periodic variations with a typical time scale of 30 minutes and hour-long slow variations.”

The different color dots show the flux at different frequencies (blue: 234.0 GHz, green: 219.5 GHz, red: 217.5 GHz). Variations with about a 30-minute period are seen in the diagram. Credits: Y. Iwata et al./Keio University

Astronomers presume that a supermassive black hole with a mass of 4 million suns is located at the center of Sgr A*. Flares of Sgr A* have been observed not only in millimeter wavelength, but also in infrared light and X-ray. However, the variations detected with ALMA are much smaller than the ones previously detected, and it is possible that these levels of small variations always occur in Sgr A*.

ALMA Milky Way
Hot spots circling around the black hole could produce the quasi-periodic millimeter emission detected with ALMA. Credits: Keio University

The black hole itself does not produce any kind of emission. The source of the emission is the scorching gaseous disk around the black hole. The gas around the black hole does not go straight to the gravitational well, but it rotates around the black hole to form an accretion disk.

The team focused on short timescale variations and found that the variation period of 30 minutes is comparable to the orbital period of the innermost edge of the accretion disk with the radius of 0.2 astronomical units (1 astronomical unit corresponds to the distance between the Earth and the Sun: 150 million kilometers). For comparison, Mercury, the solar system’s innermost planet, circles around the Sun at a distance of 0.4 astronomical units. Considering the colossal mass at the center of the black hole, its gravity effect is also extreme in the accretion disk.

“This emission could be related with some exotic phenomena occurring at the very vicinity of the supermassive black hole,” says Tomoharu Oka, a professor at Keio University.

Their scenario is as follows. Hot spots are sporadically formed in the disk and circle around the black hole, emitting strong millimeter waves. According to Einstein’s special relativity theory, the emission is largely amplified when the source is moving toward the observer with a speed comparable to that of light. The rotation speed of the inner edge of the accretion disk is quite large, so this extraordinary effect arises. The astronomers believe that this is the origin of the short-term variation of the millimeter emission from Sgr A*.

The team supposes that the variation might affect the effort to make an image of the supermassive black hole with the Event Horizon Telescope. “In general, the faster the movement is, the more difficult it is to take a photo of the object,” says Oka. “Instead, the variation of the emission itself provides compelling insight for the gas motion. We may witness the very moment of gas absorption by the black hole with a long-term monitoring campaign with ALMA.” The researchers aim to draw out independent information to understand the mystifying environment around the supermassive black hole.

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The research team members are: Yuhei Iwata (Keio University), Tomoharu Oka (Keio University), Masato Tsuboi (Japan Space Exploration Agency/The University of Tokyo), Makoto Miyoshi (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan/SOKENDAI), and Shunya Takekawa (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan)

Press release on ALMA spotting twinkling heart of Milky Way from the National Institutes of Natural Sciences