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SYFY WIRE Farscape

“Vampire” Pulsar Spitting Cosmic Cannonballs Across Space

Not even stars are safe from the undead.

By Cassidy Ward

Fictional astronaut John Crichton’s (Ben Browder) unintentional wormhole trip to the other side of the universe granted him a window to the wonders of the cosmos, for better or for worse. In the Season 2 Farscape episode “Crackers Don’t Matter” (streaming now on Peacock), Moya and her crew, along with a tagalong named T’raltixx, travel to a part of the Uncharted Territories known as the Five Pulsars.

It is said, by T’raltixx, that the pulsars can affect the behavior of “lesser” organisms. Turns out, he’s full of more hot air than Venus in the summer, but it’s almost believable because pulsars are so weird. And some are weirder than others. Recently, a team of astronomers set their sights and a dozen telescopes on solving a pulsar mystery.

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How Pulsars Are Supposed to Behave


Pulsars are strange little star corpses, but they’re pretty predictable. In fact, the behavior of pulsars is so predictable that astronomers have used their precisely timed flickers to detect low-frequency gravity waves.

To understand why pulsars are so unusual, we have to step back to before they were pulsars. You start with a star a few times more massive than the Sun. As they age, they fuse through their hydrogen and start fusing helium. Depending on how massive they are, that continues, moving up the periodic table toward iron. At some point, the star hits a wall and fusion fizzles out. As that happens, the star’s outer layers shed in a violent supernova, leaving its compact core behind.

If the core is massive enough and dense enough, it continues crushing itself inward until it collapses into a singularity and a new black hole is born. There are stars, however, which are large enough to explode when they die but too small to form a singularity. Their cores get left behind in the form of neutron stars, dimming shining stellar remnants so tightly packed that a teaspoon of its material would weigh as much as 10 million tons.

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Neutron stars are much smaller than the stars that birthed them, but they retain all of the rotational momentum from their previous life. Because they are smaller, they spin much faster than they once did, the same way a figure skater spins faster when they tuck their arms in. At the same time, intense magnetic fields squeeze energy toward the poles, blasting it out in streams of light.

As a neutron star whips around every few milliseconds or seconds, those jets spin in and out of our field of view, like magnificent cosmic lighthouses, and we call that a pulsar. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen, but a few years back the lights went out on the pulsar PSR J1023+0038.

Understanding the Weird Behavior of Pulsar J1023

Liz Pulsar GETTY

About a decade ago, the expected flicker of pulsar J1023 disappeared and was replaced by something weirder. Located roughly 4,500 light-years from here in the constellation Sextans, J1023 began switching back and forth between a high and low brightness mode, which astronomers had never seen before.

The international team of astronomers spent two nights observing the pulsar with a collection of 12 telescopes both on the ground and in orbit. They watched it switch between high and low modes 280 times in June of 2021 and tied the weird flicker to matter stolen from a nearby star.

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The pulsar, distant and weird as it is, isn’t alone in its little corner of space. It has a close binary partner and, as they orbit one another, the intense gravity of the pulsar snatches matter from the surface of its companion and gathers it in a ring around its surface.

When the pulsar is shining in high mode, it exhibits bright X-ray, ultraviolet light, and visible light. It’s practically shining a neon light across the night sky. In low mode, it’s much dimmer, and emits mostly radio waves. The pulsar switches between those two modes every few seconds or minutes, and it’s all because of the stolen matter from the companion star.

As the pulsar gathers material from its buddy, the ring shrouds the pulsar, and it drops into low brightness mode. As the ring of material falls toward the surface, it interfaces with the pulsar winds (think solar winds but wilder) and heats up, becoming brighter and shifting into high mode. But it doesn’t last long. As the polar beams whip around the pulsar, they strike the ring of gathered material, blasting it out into space in chunks like a cosmic 21-gun salute. As the ring of matter gets cleared out, it takes its light and heat with it, and the pulsar falls back into low mode.

Cosmic cannon balls are the sort of thing that might come in handy fighting the Farscape: Peacekeeper Wars, streaming now on Peacock!