Spectacular new pictures, created from images from both ground- and space-based telescopes , tell the story of the hunt for an elusive missing object hidden amid a complex tangle of gaseous filaments in the Small Magellanic Cloud, about 200 000 light-years from Earth.
New data from the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile has revealed a remarkable ring of gas in a system called 1E 0102.2-7219, expanding slowly within the depths of numerous other fast-moving filaments of gas and dust left behind after a supernova explosion. This discovery allowed a team led by Frédéric Vogt, an ESO Fellow in Chile, to track down the first ever isolated neutron star with low magnetic field located beyond our own Milky Way galaxy.
The team noticed that the ring was centred on an X-ray source that had been noted years before and designated p1. The nature of this source had remained a mystery. In particular, it was not clear whether p1 actually lies inside the remnant or behind it. It was only when the ring of gas — which includes both neon and oxygen — was observed with MUSE that the science team noticed it perfectly circled p1. The coincidence was too great, and they realised that p1 must lie within the supernova remnant itself. Once p1’s location was known, the team used existing X-ray observations of this target from the Chandra X-ray Observatory to determine that it must be an isolated neutron star, with a low magnetic field.
In the words of Frédéric Vogt: “If you look for a point source, it doesn’t get much better than when the Universe quite literally draws a circle around it to show you where to look.”
When massive stars explode as supernovae, they leave behind a curdled web of hot gas and dust, known as a supernova remnant. These turbulent structures are key to the redistribution of the heavier elements — which are cooked up by massive stars as they live and die — into the interstellar medium, where they eventually form new stars and planets.
Typically barely ten kilometres across, yet weighing more than our Sun, isolated neutron stars with low magnetic fields are thought to be abundant across the Universe, but they are very hard to find because they only shine at X-ray wavelengths . The fact that the confirmation of p1 as an isolated neutron star was enabled by optical observations is thus particularly exciting.
Co-author Liz Bartlett, another ESO Fellow in Chile, sums up this discovery: “This is the first object of its kind to be confirmed beyond the Milky Way, made possible using MUSE as a guidance tool. We think that this could open up new channels of discovery and study for these elusive stellar remains.”
This zoom sequence starts with a broad view of the southern skies and then dives towards the Small Magellanic Cloud, a small neighbouring galaxy to the Milky Way. Here we find a rich landscape of stars and glowing gas, including the filamentary remains of a supernova explosion seen about 2000 years ago. New observations from ESO’s Very Large Telescopes, along with other telescopes in space, have revealed a stellar corpse, a neutron star, hidden in this region.
ESO, NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), N. Risinger (skysurvey.org), DSS. Music: Astral Electronic
 Highly-magnetic spinning neutron stars are called pulsars. They emit strongly at radio and other wavelengths and are easier to find, but they are only a small fraction of all the neutron stars predicted to exist.
This research was presented in a paper entitled “Identification of the central compact object in the young supernova remnant 1E 0102.2-7219”, by Frédéric P. A. Vogt et al., in the journal Nature Astronomy.
The team is composed of Frédéric P. A. Vogt (ESO, Santiago, Chile & ESO Fellow), Elizabeth S. Bartlett (ESO, Santiago, Chile & ESO Fellow), Ivo R. Seitenzahl (University of New South Wales Canberra, Australia), Michael A. Dopita (Australian National University, Canberra, Australia), Parviz Ghavamian (Towson University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA), Ashley J. Ruiter (University of New South Wales Canberra & ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics, Australia) and Jason P. Terry (University of Georgia, Athens, USA).
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It has 15 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a strategic partner. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.
This press release originally appeared on eso.org.