Cosmic Chills: The Mysterious Ghost Hand Discovered by NASA’s X-Ray Telescopes

X-Ray Telescopes Reveal the “Bones” of a Ghostly Cosmic Hand

By combining data from Chandra and IXPE, astronomers are learning more about how a pulsar is injecting particles into space and shaping its environment. The X-ray data are shown along with infrared data from the Dark Energy Camera in Chile. Young pulsars can create jets of matter and antimatter moving away from the poles of the pulsar, along with an intense wind, forming a “pulsar wind nebula.” This one, known as MSH 15-52, has a shape resembling a human hand and provides insight into how these objects are formed. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford Univ./R. Romani et al. (Chandra); NASA/MSFC (IXPE); Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DECaPS; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt

NASA’s Chandra and IXPE telescopes unveil the magnetic “bones” of the “hand”-shaped pulsar wind nebula, MSH 15-52, offering groundbreaking insights into X-ray polarization and magnetic field dynamics.

  • Chandra and IXPE data have been used to examine the pulsar wind nebula known as MSH 15-52.
  • Pulsar wind nebulae are clouds of energetic particles blown away from dead, collapsed stars.
  • MSH 15-52 is well-known for its shape that resembles that of a human hand.
  • IXPE observed this for about 17 days of observing time, the longest look at a single object yet for this mission.

The Marvel of Pulsars

Rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields, or pulsars, serve as laboratories for extreme physics, offering high-energy conditions that cannot be replicated on Earth. Young pulsars can create jets of matter and antimatter moving away from the poles of the pulsar, along with an intense wind, forming a “pulsar wind nebula.”

Discovering the ‘Hand in Space’

In 2001, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory first observed the pulsar PSR B1509-58 and revealed that its pulsar wind nebula (referred to as MSH 15-52) resembles a human hand. The pulsar is located at the base of the “palm” of the nebula. Now Chandra’s data of MSH 15-52 have been combined with data from NASA’s newest X-ray telescope, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) to unveil the magnetic field “bones” of this remarkable structure. IXPE stared at MSH 15-52 for 17 days, the longest it has looked at any single object since it launched in December 2021.

MSH 15-52 Chandra

This is the view of MSH 15-52 from Chandra X-ray observation. It doesn’t include the IXPE X-ray and infrared observations that are included in the composite image at the top of the article. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford Univ./R. Romani et al. (Chandra); Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt

Interpreting the Composite Image

In a new composite image, Chandra data are seen in orange (low-energy X-rays), green, and blue (higher-energy X-rays), while the diffuse purple represents the IXPE observations. The pulsar is in the bright region at the base of the palm and the fingers are reaching toward low energy X-ray clouds in the surrounding remains of the supernova that formed the pulsar. The image also includes infrared data from the second data release of the Dark Energy Camera Plane Survey (DECaPS2) in red and blue.

First Medical X-Ray by Wilhelm Röntgen

First medical X-ray by Wilhelm Röntgen of his wife Anna Bertha Ludwig’s hand. Credit: Wilhelm Röntgen

X-ray Polarization and the Magnetic Map

The IXPE data provides the first map of the magnetic field in the ‘hand’. It reveals information about the electric field orientation of X-rays determined by the magnetic field of the X-ray source. This is called “X-ray polarization.”

An additional X-ray image (below) shows the magnetic field map in MSH 15-52. In this image, short straight lines represent IXPE polarization measurements, mapping the direction of the local magnetic field. Orange “bars” mark the most precise measurements, followed by cyan and blue bars with less precise measurements. The complex field lines follow the `wrist’, ‘palm’, and ‘fingers’ of the hand, and probably help define the extended finger-like structures.

MSH 15-52 Vectors

Magnetic field map in MSH 15-52. Lines represent IXPE polarization measurements, mapping the direction of the local magnetic field. The length of the bars indicates the amount of polarization. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford Univ./R. Romani et al. (Chandra); NASA/MSFC (IXPE); Infared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DECaPS; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt

Magnetic Field and Polarization

The amount of polarization — indicated by bar length — is remarkably high, reaching the maximum level expected from theoretical work. To achieve that strength, the magnetic field must be very straight and uniform, meaning there is little turbulence in those regions of the pulsar wind nebula.

One particularly interesting feature of MSH 15-52 is a bright X-ray jet directed from the pulsar to the “wrist” at the bottom of the image. The new IXPE data reveal that the polarization at the start of the jet is low, likely because this is a turbulent region with complex, tangled magnetic fields associated with the generation of high-energy particles. By the end of the jet the magnetic field lines appear to straighten and become much more uniform, causing the polarization to become much larger.

A paper describing these results by Roger Romani of Stanford University and collaborators was published in The Astrophysical Journal on October 23, 2023.

Reference: “The Polarized Cosmic Hand: IXPE Observations of PSR B1509−58/MSH 15−52 ” by Roger W. Romani, Josephine Wong, Niccoló Di Lalla, Nicola Omodei, Fei Xie, C.-Y. Ng, Riccardo Ferrazzoli, Alessandro Di Marco, Niccoló Bucciantini, Maura Pilia, Patrick Slane, Martin C. Weisskopf, Simon Johnston, Marta Burgay, Deng Wei, Yi-Jung Yang, Shumeng Zhang, Lucio A. Antonelli, Matteo Bachetti, Luca Baldini, Wayne H. Baumgartner, Ronaldo Bellazzini, Stefano Bianchi, Stephen D. Bongiorno, Raffaella Bonino, Alessandro Brez, Fiamma Capitanio, Simone Castellano, Elisabetta Cavazzuti, Chien-Ting Chen, Nicoló Cibrario, Stefano Ciprini, Enrico Costa, Alessandra De Rosa, Ettore Del Monte, Laura Di Gesu, Immacolata Donnarumma, Victor Doroshenko, Michal Dovčiak, Steven R. Ehlert, Teruaki Enoto, Yuri Evangelista, Sergio Fabiani, Javier A. Garcia, Shuichi Gunji, Kiyoshi Hayashida, Jeremy Heyl, Wataru Iwakiri, Ioannis Liodakis, Philip Kaaret, Vladimir Karas, Dawoon E. Kim, Takao Kitaguchi, Jeffery J. Kolodziejczak, Henric Krawczynski, Fabio La Monaca, Luca Latronico, Grzegorz Madejski, Simone Maldera, Alberto Manfreda, Frédéric Marin, Andrea Marinucci, Alan P. Marscher, Herman L. Marshall, Francesco Massaro, Giorgio Matt, Riccardo Middei, Ikuyuki Mitsuishi, Tsunefumi Mizuno, Fabio Muleri, Michela Negro, Stephen L. O’Dell, Chiara Oppedisano, Luigi Pacciani, Alessandro Papitto, George G. Pavlov, Matteo Perri, Melissa Pesce-Rollins, Pierre-Olivier Petrucci, Andrea Possenti, Juri Poutanen, Simonetta Puccetti, Brian D. Ramsey, John Rankin, Ajay Ratheesh, Oliver J. Roberts, Carmelo Sgró, Paolo Soffitta, Gloria Spandre, Douglas A. Swartz, Toru Tamagawa, Fabrizio Tavecchio, Roberto Taverna, Yuzuru Tawara, Allyn F. Tennant, Nicholas E. Thomas, Francesco Tombesi, Alessio Trois, Sergey Tsygankov, Roberto Turolla, Jacco Vink, Kinwah Wu and Silvia Zane, 23 October 2023, The Astrophysical Journal.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/acfa02

IXPE is a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency with partners and science collaborators in 12 countries. IXPE is led by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Ball Aerospace, headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado, manages spacecraft operations together with the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls science operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.

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