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X-Ray Telescopes Reveal the "Bones" of a Ghostly Cosmic Hand
If there is a hand, where is the rest of it?
There are certain places you just expect to be haunted. Boarded up houses, medieval castles, and abandoned animatronic restaurants are usually a good bet. In Five Nights at Freddy’s (streaming now on Peacock), when Mike (Josh Hutcherson) took an overnight security gig at family-fun-zone-turned-decaying-urban-eyesore Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, he probably should have assumed the resident robots were inhabited by the souls of angry children.
Seeing ghosts through the camera lens is just part of the job at Freddy’s, but it’s not something you expect when looking through telescope images of distant pulsars. So, you can imagine the surprise of astronomers when they found a massive, ghostly hand stretching into space, complete with bones revealed by X-ray.
Two X-Ray Telescopes Capture Ghostly Hand in Deep Space
Roughly 1,500 years ago from our point of view, a star reached the end of its life and collapsed into a rapidly rotating neutron star. The young pulsar is incredibly dense and electromagnetically powerful, and it’s spitting jets of matter and antimatter from its two electromagnetic poles, creating a pulsar wind which cuts through the surrounding space.
When that wind interacts with dust and gas, it forms a pulsar wind nebula considerably larger and more beautiful than the comparatively small star creating it. For reasons which are still only partially understood, the nebula presents in the form of a sprawling hand stretched out toward the stars.
The pulsar wind nebula dubbed MSH 15-52, roughly 16,000 light-years from here, is the subject of recent observations by two X-ray telescopes. Astronomers used data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), combined with infrared data from the Dark Energy Camera in Chile to capture a ghostly image of the nebula. The results of those observations were recently published in The Astrophysical Journal.
“The IXPE data gives us the first map of the magnetic field in the ‘hand’. The charged particles producing the X-rays travel along the magnetic field, determining the basic shape of the nebula, like the bones do in a person’s hand,” said Roger Romani, lead author of the study, in a statement.
The pulsar responsible for the hand-shaped nebula is located in the palm, with the rest of the hand’s apparent anatomy spreading out in various directions. Recent data reveals previously unknown X-ray jets contributing to the spread of material. The structure, creepy as it might be, reveals the way magnetic field lines move away from the pulsar’s turbulent center toward calmer cosmic waters at the wrist, fingers, and thumb.