SA's MeerKAT astronomers score massive win in discovering super magnetic star secrets

2018-04-06 05:41
Part of the ensemble of dishes forming the MeerKAT radio telescope in Carnarvon. (Mujahid Safodien, AFP, file)

Part of the ensemble of dishes forming the MeerKAT radio telescope in Carnarvon. (Mujahid Safodien, AFP, file)

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South Africa's MeerKAT radio telescope has scored an impressive observational victory with the publication of its magnetar study in The Astrophysical Journal.

The journal gave a description of the study, conducted by the radio telescope array in the Northern Cape, which observed a rare burst of activity from the exotic star.

"The first scientific publication based on MeerKAT data is a wonderful milestone," said Professor Roy Maartens, SKA SA research chair at the University of the Western Cape.

"Although MeerKAT isn't complete yet, it's now clearly a functioning telescope. We've been training a new generation of researchers, and soon our young scientists will be using what promises to be a remarkable discovery machine."

Magnetars are rare stars that form from neutron stars, which have powerful magnetic fields.

"Neutron stars are the very dense remains left over after the supernova explosion at the end of a massive star's life. When the star reaches the end of its nuclear burning phase, and there is no more fuel available for burning, the star explodes in an extremely bright supernova explosion, blasting off its outer layers and leaving a very dense core behind," Dr Rosalind Skelton of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) told News24.

Difficult to observe

Skelton's research field focuses on galaxy formation and how star formation influences the growth of galaxies.

NASA research suggests that there may be far more magnetars that are currently known because they are notoriously difficult to observe.

"They are difficult to observe because they are very faint at optical wavelengths. We can detect them indirectly through their effect of the objects around them (because of their large gravitational fields)," said SAAO astronomer Dr Itumeleng Monageng, who recently completed his PhD where he focused on a sub-class of high-mass X-ray binary systems, known as Be/X-ray binaries.

"We can also detect them as pulsars - when the spin of the magnetars or neutron stars is such that the magnetic poles cross Earth's line of sight where the radiation from the poles can then be detected using radio, X-ray or gamma-ray instruments."

These exotic stars have a magnetic field in the order of around a million billion Gauss (Gs), compared to the sun's magnetic field of 5Gs. Few are known to astronomers.

"We only know of about 10 magnetars in the Milky Way galaxy," said Dr Peter Woods of the Universities Space Research Association.

A burst of gamma rays from a magnetar was first detected in 1979 which was then classified as a Soft Gamma-ray Repeater. The gamma rays alerted scientists to the super strong magnetic field from which the term magnetar is derived.

Luckily for us, most magnetars are far away from Earth because if they were close, the huge magnetic field could have devastating impacts for life on our home planet.

"If it was as close as the nearest star to Earth, the intense radiation stream would destroy our atmosphere and surface - killing all life forms. Also, the magnetic field is so strong that it would destroy us at an atomic level (the electrons in our atoms would that affected)," said Monageng.

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