Washington, November 5 (ANI): NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has come across evidence for a thin veil of carbon on the neutron star in the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant.
"The compact star at the center of this famous supernova remnant has been an enigma since its discovery," said Wynn Ho of the University of Southampton. "Now, we finally understand that it can be produced by a hot neutron star with a carbon atmosphere," he added.
By analyzing Chandra's X-ray spectrum - akin to a fingerprint of energy - and applying it to theoretical models, Ho and his colleague Craig Heinke, from the University of Alberta, determined that the neutron star in Cassiopeia A, or Cas A for short, has an ultra-thin coating of carbon.
This is the first time the composition of an atmosphere of an isolated neutron star has been confirmed.
The Chandra "First Light" image of Cas A in 1999 revealed a previously undetected point-like source of X-rays at the center.
This object was presumed to be a neutron star, the typical remnant of an exploded star, but researchers were unable to understand its properties.
Defying astronomers' expectations, this object did not show any X-ray or radio pulsations or any signs of radio pulsar activity.
By applying a model of a neutron star with a carbon atmosphere to this object, Ho and Heinke found that the region emitting X-rays would uniformly cover a typical neutron star.
This would explain the lack of X-ray pulsations because - like a light bulb that shines consistently in all directions - this neutron star would be unlikely to display any changes in its intensity as it rotates.
"Our carbon veil solves one of the big questions about the neutron star in Cas A," said Craig Heinke.
"People have been willing to consider some weird explanations, so it's a relief to discover a less peculiar solution," he added.
The researchers calculate that the carbon atmosphere is only about 4 inches thick, because it has been compressed by a surface gravity that is 100 billion times stronger than on Earth.
In Earth's time frame, the estimated age of the neutron star in Cas A is only several hundred years, making it about ten times younger than other neutron stars with detected surface emission.
Therefore, the Cas A neutron star gives a unique window into the early life of a cooling neutron star.
The carbon itself comes from a combination of material that has fallen back after the supernova, and nuclear reactions on the hot surface of the neutron star which convert hydrogen and helium into carbon. (ANI)