June 29, 2012 at 7:19 PM ET
There's a new contender for the title of fastest star in the universe: an apparent pulsar that's blazing away from the scene of a supernova at a velocity in the range of 6 million mph (10 million kilometers per hour). But as is the case with every superlative in nature, this title is not exactly undisputed.
From now on, when folks talk about stellar speediness, they'll have to talk about an X-ray source called IGR J11014-6103 — which the INTEGRAL gamma-ray probe discovered about 30,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Carina.
IGR J11014 shows up as a light green, comet-shaped blob in color-coded images released this week by the science team behind NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The green blob marks X-ray emissions detected by Chandra. Elsewhere in the imagery, you can see purple-tinged patches, indicating the super-hot, X-ray-emitting remnants of a supernova known as SNR MSH 11-61A. Those observations were made by another X-ray telescope, the European Space Agency's XMM Newton probe.
The X-ray views were combined with earlier optical and radio readings to produce a full picture of the scene, which is discussed in a paper recently published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Berkeley astronomer John Tomsick, the research paper's lead author, told me that the X-ray emissions from IGR J11014 suggest that it's a pulsar — a rapidly spinning, super-dense star that was ejected by the supernova explosion. The star's greenish X-ray tail is probably a pulsar wind nebula, a blast of high-energy particles that's produced by IGR J11014 and swept back as the star plows through the interstellar medium.
In the image, you can see a fainter X-ray tail extending from the star toward the top right. Chandra's team says the cause of that feature is unknown, but similar tails have been seen sticking out from other pulsars.
Previous observations have led astronomers to conclude that the supernova remnant as it's seen today is 15,000 years old. If you combine that age figure with the estimated distance between the center of the blast and IGR J11014's current position, that would imply that the pulsar has been moving at a speed of 5.4 million to 6.5 million mph.
That would be incredibly fast for a star like IGRJ11014. Only one other star associated with a supernova has been clocked at a comparable speed. That neutron star appears to be zooming away from the supernova remnant G350.1-0.3 at a velocity estimated at 3 million to 6 million mph. If these speeds are confirmed, "this would challenge theorists to create models that explain such super speeds out of supernova explosions," Chandra's science team said.
There are still some open questions, however. For example, readings from Australia's Parkes radio telescope have not yet confirmed that IGR J11014 is actually a pulsar. The signature of the object's emissions — including the fact that no counterpart to the X-ray source has been found in optical or infrared imagery — strongly suggests that it's a pulsar. But eventually, astronomers will want to see the star's pattern of pulsations. They'll also want to confirm that their view of the star's trajectory is correct.
That's why Tomsick wants to get some more observing time for IGR J11014. "We're quite hopeful," he said.
Even if IGR J11014 turns out to be speedier than the neutron star associated with G350.1-0.3, the stellar speed record depends on how you define your terms. Tomsick points out that black holes eject jets of material at velocities approaching the speed of light (186,000 miles per second, or 671 million mph). And if you consider the expansion of the universe, whole galaxies appear to be zooming away from us at speeds of hundreds of millions of miles per hour.
But if the facts about IGR J11014 check out, it deserves some sort of spot in the cosmic record books, and not just in the pulsar category. "It's speedier than any of the regular stars out there," Tomsick said.
Where in the Cosmos
IGR J11014 was the focus of today's "Where in the Cosmos" photo quiz on the Cosmic Log Facebook page, and I swear it took less than a minute for Turkish astronomer Arif Solmaz to figure out that the green blob in the picture was a pulsar. In recognition of his quick wits (and quick typing fingers), I'm sending him a pair of 3-D glasses, provided courtesy of the WorldWide Telescope team, as well as a signed 3-D picture of yours truly. Kathi Wagner wasn't far behind, thanks to the fact that she had read about IGR J11014 on Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog — and because any friend of Phil's is a friend of mine, she'll be getting some 3-D glasses as well.
Be sure to hit the "like" button for the Cosmic Log Facebook page so you're ready to play "Where in the Cosmos" next Friday.
More about celestial speed:
In addition to Tomsick, authors of "Is IGR J11014-6103 a Pulsar with the Highest Known Kick Velocity?" include Arash Bodaghee, Jerome Rodriguez, Sylvain Chaty, Fernando Camilo, Francesca Fornasini and Farid Rahoui.
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.