The Pulsar Vs. The Billion-Ton Asteroid: Astronomers Say Distant Star Is Getting Slammed With Space Rocks

By Ben Wolford on February 21, 2014 4:52 PM EST

An artists rendition of the pulsar breaking apart a billion-ton asteroid. (Image: NASA)
An artists rendition of the pulsar breaking apart a billion-ton asteroid. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A team of astronomers say they're witnessing collisions between enormous asteroids and a pulsar, the strobe light of space, 37,000 lightyears away. One of the asteroids is believed to be 1 billion tons.

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Of course, the scientists haven't really gotten a visual on these collisions (that's why NASA had to commission an artistic interpretation of it, above), but they were able to deduce them based on changes in the rotation and radio pulse of the star. A pulsar is like a stellar lighthouse: it's an extremely dense, small star called a neutron star that spins around and emits electromagnetic radiation in a single direction, like the flicker of a lighthouse. Here on Earth, we can pick up those waves, but only when the star is "pointing" at us.

And these flickers are like clockwork. The pulsar pulses precisely all the time. Unless something crazy happens — like being pelted by gigantic asteroids. "One of these rocks seems to have had a mass of about a billion tonnes," says Dr. Ryan Shannon, an astronomer with Australia's national science agency, in a statement. By comparison, the Empire State Building weighs about 350,000 tons.

So who wins, the pulsar or the asteroid? Well, not the asteroid. Pulsars are way more massive than any asteroid. But that doesn't mean the pulsar walks off the field without some bruises. The results were published late last year in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

These astronomers discovered the collisions based on previous predictions that Shannon made with a collaborator. They speculated that if asteroids were to attack a pulsar, the debris would be vaporized by the star and electrically charged. Those charged particles would then orbit the pulsar, messing with its spin rate and magnetism. It would be, as Discovery News puts it, "like a magnetic blender." And that's exactly what they saw when they gazed up at this pulsar through two telescopes in Australia and South Africa.

The pulsar is known as PSR J0738-4042 and can be found in the constellation Puppis, in the southern sky. What's interesting about these massive asteroids slamming into it — other than the fact that massive asteroids are slamming into it — is that the conditions around this pulsar aren't the kind of place you'd expect big, almost moon-sized rocks to exist. There's a ton of radiation and debris that would normally prevent the accumulation of rocks into anything planet-like. Shannon says that "if a large rocky object can form here, planets could form around any star. That's exciting."

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