Vela pulsar emits most energetic gamma ray bursts ever discovered

in context: Pulsars are rotating neutron stars that form from the remains of supergiant stars that have undergone supernova explosions. These celestial bodies emit rays of highly energetic electromagnetic radiation as they rotate. When the rays are oriented toward Earth they can be seen by telescopes, resembling a kind of cosmic lighthouse.

An international team of scientists working with the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) telescope has made an unprecedented discovery: pulsars may be even more energetic than previously thought. Researchers used five HESS telescopes located in Namibia to detect the highest gamma ray emission ever observed from a pulsar.

The energies involved in this discovery are staggering, totaling 20 tera-electronvolts, approximately ten trillion times the energy carried by photons in visible light. These newly discovered gamma ray emissions challenge existing theories that describe the behavior of pulsars. The rays emanating from the pulsar appear to emit different energy levels in different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Scientists believe that these emissions originate from fast electrons being generated and accelerated within the pulsar’s magnetosphere. The magnetosphere consists of plasma and electromagnetic fields that surround the star and rotate with it. As electrons travel outward through these magnetic fields, they accumulate energy and eventually release it as observable gamma ray bursts, similar to a lighthouse.

The study focused on Vela, a highly energetic pulsar famous for its rapid rotation. Located in the southern sky within the constellation Vela, this neutron star rotates 11 times per second. Vela stands out as the brightest and most persistent object within the high-energy gamma-ray range. Earlier observations had detected emissions within the giga-electronvolt (GeV) range, beyond which point the electromagnetic emissions stopped abruptly.

Scientists speculate that this sudden stop occurs when energetic electrons finally reach the outer boundary of the pulsar’s magnetosphere and escape into space. Thanks to the HESS telescopes, researchers were able to make more extensive observations in higher energy ranges. Their findings revealed the beginning of a new gamma ray release with energies reaching the tens of tera-electronvolts (TeV) range. The discovery reveals emissions that are 200 times more energetic than any radiation previously detected from this celestial object.

To achieve these energy levels, the electrons may need to travel beyond the boundaries of the pulsar’s magnetosphere, while maintaining the integrity of the rotational emission pattern. The recent revelation of Vela’s gamma ray bursts challenges our current understanding of pulsars, prompting a reassessment of the mechanisms governing these natural accelerators.

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