The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) reports that a small star, known as PSR J0738-4042, is being pounded by asteroids. The discovery was made utilizing CSIRO’s Parkes telescope and another telescope in South Africa.
“One of these rocks seems to have had a mass of about a billion tons,” noted Dr. Ryan Shannon, CSIRO astronomer and member of the research team, in a statement.
The environment around the tiny star, which resides 37,000 light-year away in the constellation of Puppis, is full of radiation and powerful winds of particles.
“If a large rocky object can form here, planets could form around any star. That’s exciting,” Dr. Shannon posited
The small star is a pulsar. According to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “a pulsar is a neutron star that emits beams of radiation that sweep through Earth’s line of sight. The ‘pulses’ of high-energy radiation we see from a pulsar are due to a misalignment of the neutron star’s rotation axis and its magnetic axis.”
As PSR J0738-4042 rotates, its radio beam flashes over Earth again and again with the constancy of a clock.
In 2008, Dr. Shannon and a colleague predicted the an infalling asteroid would change the slowing of the pulsar’s spin rate and the shape of the radio pulse the we observe on Earth.
“That is exactly what we see in this case,” Dr Shannon said. “We think the pulsar’s radio beam zaps the asteroid, vaporizing it. But the vaporized particles are electrically charged and they slightly alter the process that creates the pulsar’s beam.”
According to the CSIRO, the asteroids around a pulsar could be produced by the exploding star that developed the pulsar itself. The material blown out from the explosion could fall back towards the developing pulsar, developing a disk of debris.
“This sort of dust disk could provide the ‘seeds’ that grow into larger asteroids,” said study leader Paul Brook, a PhD student co-supervised by the University of Oxford and CSIRO.
The study’s findings are described in greater detail in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.