05 March 2018
ESA’s INTEGRAL space observatory has witnessed a rare event: the moment that winds emitted by a swollen red giant star revived its slow-spinning companion, the core of a dead star, bringing it back to life in a flash of X-rays.
The X-ray flare was first detected by INTEGRAL on 13 August 2017 from an unknown source in the direction of the crowded centre of our Milky Way. The sudden detection triggered a slew of follow-up observations in the following weeks to pin down the culprit.
The observations revealed a strongly magnetised and slowly rotating neutron star that had likely just begun to feed on material from a neighbouring red giant star.
Stars the mass of our Sun, and up to eight times more massive, evolve into red giants towards the end of their lives. Their outer layers puff up and expand millions of kilometres, their dusty, gassy shells blown away from the central star in relatively slow winds up to few hundreds of km/s.
Even larger stars, up to 25–30 times more massive than the Sun, race through their fuel and explode in a supernova, sometimes leaving behind a spinning stellar corpse with a strong magnetic field, known as a neutron star. This tiny core packs the mass of nearly one and half Suns into a sphere only 10 km across, making them some of the densest celestial objects known.