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Neutron star Scorpius in intergalactic thriller

The star system Scorpius X-1 hurls a flare in a frame from a radio telescope movie
The star system Scorpius X-1 hurls a flare in a frame from a radio telescope movie  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Astronomers have teamed up to direct an intergalactic thriller, starring a voracious neutron star as it unleashes pulsating jets of super-hot, super-fast subatomic particles.

Drawing from observations of large telescopes around the world, the movie shows two narrow jets from the star blasting out clouds of heated plasma at nearly the speed of light.

As the drama unfolds, bursts of even faster energy from the jets seem to brighten the clouds with periodic jolts, according to astronomers.

"We have directly measured the speed of energy flow in a cosmic jet for the first time," said Ed Fomalont, a scientist with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, last week.

image Watch a radio image movie of Scorpius X-1
(Courtesy NRAO)

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Fomalont and colleague used radio telescopes in the United States, Japan, Australia and South Africa to put together the video collage of the neutron star system, which includes a companion star from which the neutron star draws material to fuel the jets.

The movie is unprecedented but cosmic jets are not. Such speeding bursts of particles emanate from many binary star systems in our galaxy. In a similar manner, double jets shoot out particle streams from the cores of numerous galaxies. Massive black holes are thought to be the driving engines of the latter, much larger jets.

"Studying one of the closer, smaller examples will help us understand how they all work, including the bigger ones," said Barry Geldzahler, a George Mason University scientist who took part in the celestial cinema project.

The star of the movie is Scorpius X-1, which contains a neutron star with roughly 1.5 times the mass of the sun and a conventional star about the same mass as the sun. The pair is more than 9,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Scorpius.

In the movie, the jets push two clouds in opposite directions away from the core. The one heading in the direction of Earth seems much brighter and faster, the scientists said.

The core flared up twice, shooting bursts of electrons at more than 95 percent the speed of light. The slower clouds brighten considerably when overtaken by the speeding subatomic particles.

The scientists published their report in the May 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters. They made the movie from 56 hours of continuous observation.

"Scorpius X-1 put on a great show for us. Now it's up to us to figure out how it performs its act," Fomalont said.

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