Astronomers have revealed more dramatic details of one of our most ghostly discoveries, the pulsar wind nebula MSH 15-52, also known as the ‘cosmic hand’ or ‘hand of God’. By combining the powers of two X-ray telescopes, NASA’s powerful Chandra X-ray Observatory and Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), researchers have now visualized the magnetic field ‘bones’ within the ghost-like phenomenon.
“The IXPE data gives us the first map of the magnetic field in the ‘hand’,” said study lead Roger Romani, from Stanford University. “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.”
In 2001, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory first observed the pulsar PSR B1509-58 and saw that its pulsar wind nebula (MSH 15-52) resembled a human hand. The pulsar, at the base of the nebula’s ‘palm’, is located some 16,000 light-years from Earth.
Now, after observing MSH 15-52 for around 17 days, IXPE has revealed more details of the haunting formation. This is the longest the telescope has been trained on any single object since it launched in 2021.
Combining the telescopic data, the astronomers have shown that through the flow of energized particles and antimatter, this supernova remnant lives on some 1,500 years after the star ran out of juice and collapsed in on itself.
“We’re all familiar with X-rays as a diagnostic medical tool for humans,” said co-author Josephine Wong, also from Stanford. “Here we’re using X-rays in a different way, but they are again revealing information that is otherwise hidden from us.”
IXPE details the electric field orientation of X-rays, which is determined by the magnetic field of the source (X-ray polarization). The polarization in some regions of MSH 15-52 is incredibly high, suggesting there’s little turbulence in those parts of the nebula.
However, enhancing the composite image, the scientists have revealed that energetic particles get a power boost in the more complex turbulent regions near the pulsar at the base of the palm. They then flow to uniform areas of the magnetic field – or along the wrist, fingers and thumb.
The new data also reveals one bright X-ray jet from the palm, down along the wrist. While polarization is low where it begins, likely due to turbulence and jumbled magnetic fields, the jet straightens and brightens, showing much higher polarization at the outer region, where the hand is ‘cut off’.
“We’ve uncovered the life history of super energetic matter and antimatter particles around the pulsar,” said co-author Niccolò Di Lalla, from Stanford. “This teaches us about how pulsars can act as particle accelerators.”
The research was published in The Astrophysical Journal. For more, see the video below:
Quick Look: X-ray Telescopes Reveal the “Bones” of a Ghostly Cosmic Hand