NASA's Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) telescope recently detected a spike of X-rays in outer space. These X-rays are part of a huge thermonuclear explosion on the surface of a pulsar — the remains of a star that exploded as a supernova.
The burst was caught on August 20th from the International Space Station, as the X-ray's beam was so intense.
It goes to show just how unpredictable and dangerous deep space can be.
The orbital explosion
This burst is the brightest one seen by NASA so far. It came from an object named SAX J1808.4-3658 or J1808. What's really interesting about this burst is that it combines many phenomena that scientists have never seen together before.
On August 20, the NICER telescope on the @Space_Station detected a sudden spike of X-rays coming from the surface of J1808, a pulsar located 11,000 light-years away. The burst released as much energy in 20 seconds as the Sun does in nearly 10 days. https://t.co/Tc20sXwU1o pic.twitter.com/Bnn5Hx80Ay— NASA Universe (@NASAUniverse) November 7, 2019
Additionally, the fireball lit up again for a brief period of time — a phenomenon astronomers are still trying to figure out.
Lead researcher and astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Peter Bult, said: "This burst was outstanding. We see a two-step change in brightness, which we think is caused by the ejection of separate layers from the pulsar surface, and other features that will help us decode the physics of these powerful events."
Classified as a 'Type I X-ray burst,' astronomers detected as much energy deriving from it in 20 seconds as our sun releases over 10 days.
Thanks to NICER's observations, scientists will be able to understand such extreme eruptions better and learn more about them.
Astronomers believe this thermonuclear explosion was brought about by helium that sunk beneath the surface of the pulsar, fusing into a carbon block.
"Then the helium erupts explosively and unleashes a thermonuclear fireball across the entire pulsar surface," explained NICER deputy principal investigator and co-author of the study, Zaven Arzoumanian.
The study was published on October 23, in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.