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Press Release 05-025
VLA Probes Secrets of Mysterious Magnetar

Radio telescopes monitor the expanding fireball from a supermagnetic neutron star

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The expanding fireball.

This graphic illustrates the VLA measurements of the exanding fireball from the Dec. 27, 2004, outburst of the magnetar SGR 1806-20. Each color indicates the observed size of the fireball at a different time. The sequence covers roughly three weeks of VLA observing. The outline of the fireball in each case is not an actual image, but rather a "best-fit" model of the shape that best matches the data from the VLA.

Credit: G.B. Taylor, NRAO/AUI/NSF


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The magnetar timeline

Tens of thousands of years ago, an explosive release of energy on the magnetar SGR 1806-20 sent a pulse of gamma rays racing across the cosmos at the speed of light. NASA's brand-new Swift satellite detected the gamma rays as they swept past the Earth on Dec. 27, 2004. Then behind them came a steady stream of radio waves from the explosion's expanding fireball - an information-rich signal astronomers using NSF's Very Large Array of radio telescopes have been studying ever since.

Credit: Nicolle Rager, National Science Foundation


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Antennas of the VLA in New Mexico.

The Very Large Array, one of the world's premier astronomical radio observatories, consists of 27 radio antennas in a Y-shaped configuration on the Plains of San Agustin, 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico. Each antenna is 82 feet in diameter. When the data from the antennas are combined electronically, the result is an ultra-high-resolution radio image of the heavens showing much finer detail than any single antenna could manage on its own.

Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF and Kristal Armendariz, photographer


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Still from magnetar animation

View Video
SGR 1806-20 is a "magnetar": a rapidly spinning neutron star that has both an incredible density, trillions of times greater than ordinary matter, and an incredibly strong magnetic field. Tens of thousands of years ago, a "starquake" disrupted the magnetar's surface. The result was an explosive release of energy, which sent a pulse of gamma rays racing across the cosmos at the speed of light.

Credit: Trent L. Schindler, National Science Foundation

 



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