NASA’s NuSTAR X-ray camera has caught a celestial object that is 10 million times brighter than the Sun and is breaking the law.
Scientists aren’t sure what to make of ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs) because they don’t follow the Eddington limit, which says that an object can only be as bright as its mass allows.
These mysterious ULXs have been hard to figure out, pushing the limits of what scientists know.
Measurement of a ULX for the first time
NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) was used by the study team to measure a ULX for the first time ever.
Recent research confirms that these strange light sources shine with an amazing amount of brightness, proving that they can go against the Eddington limit. One popular theory says that their incredibly bright light comes from strong magnetic fields.
Scientists can’t test this theory, though, because they don’t have the technology to make such strong magnetic fields in a controlled lab setting. Instead, they have to rely on data to test this theory.
The Eddington limit is broken when the outward force of photons is stronger than the gravity pull of an object in space.
NASA says this happens when a ULX shines light with a very high strength per unit area. This makes the photons stronger than the object’s gravity pull, so they push away any matter that comes close.
Before, people thought that ULXs were black holes ringed by bright gas. In 2014, NuSTAR found that the ULX M82 X-2 is actually a neutron star. Neutron stars are made from stars that have exploded, which squeezes the mass of our Sun into an area smaller than a mid-sized city.
Neutron stars are so dense that it’s hard to imagine how strong their gravity is. It’s about 100 trillion times stronger than Earth’s.
As the matter is pulled toward the neutron star, it speeds up to unbelievable speeds and crashes into the surface, releasing an amount of energy that has never been seen before. This is what causes the high-energy X-rays that NuSTAR can see.
More than the mass of Earth
The latest study looked at the ULX M82 X-2 again and found that it gets 9 billion trillion tons of material from a nearby star every year, which is more than the mass of Earth. Calculations and readings agreed, showing that M82 X-2 is bigger than the Eddington limit.
If the brightness of more ULXs is confirmed, it could debunk a theory about how their brightness could be explained without going over the Eddington limit. This theory says that when concentrated emissions in a hollow cone are pointed toward Earth, they give the sense of light.
On the other hand, the study confirms the idea that strong magnetic fields can change the shape of atoms to make them longer, which decreases photon push and increases maximum brightness.
Matteo Bachetti, an astrophysicist from the National Institute of Astrophysics’ Cagliari Observatory in Italy and the study’s lead author, said in a statement, “These observations let us see the effects of these incredibly strong magnetic fields that we could never make on Earth with the technology we have now.”
“This is what makes science so beautiful. By looking at the sky, we can learn more about how the world works. On the other hand, we can’t really set up studies to get quick answers; we have to wait for the world to show us its secrets.”
The results of the study were written up in The Astrophysical Journal.