While the black widow answer might sound simple, it was anything but and that’s due to how difficult it was to actually detect the black widow star. Scientists searched through gamma radiation data from the years 2008 to 2018 and used that data to pin down the location of the black widow star.
“The binary star system and the neutron star at its heart, now known as PSR J1653-0158, set new records,” Lars Nieder, Albert Einstein Institute Hannover astronomer said. “We have discovered the galactic dance of a super heavyweight with a flyweight: At slightly more than twice the mass of our Sun, the neutron star is extraordinarily heavy. Its companion has about six times the density of lead, but only about 1 percent the mass of our Sun.”Knowing how small the black widow star was compared to its larger companion star in the binary system, it’s easy to see the difficulty in finding this unique black widow star. Scientists said this heavyweight-flyweight duo orbited every 75 minutes, which is faster than all other known similar binary systems. Scientists believed that the system they were looking for would have been produced by a gamma-ray pulsar and things heated up when in 2014, x-rays and other observations of the gamma radiation source led to an answer: a variable star with a 75-minute period.
So scientists had discovered the smaller companion star but they couldn’t find the larger neutron star at this point. The neutron star was thought to have been a pulsar star, which is a rapidly-rotating neutron star that beams radiation to and fro from its poles as it spins. From an observer’s point of view, those beams, which are rotating due to the star’s rotation, would appear like that of the spinning light found at the top of a lighthouse.
Scientists looked into decades of gamma radiation collected by the Large Area Telescope of NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Two weeks of research led to the discovery of the pulsar star they were looking to find. This pulsar rotates extremely fast, more than 500 times a second. In fact, this polar is one of the fastest rotating pulsars ever seen. It’s also in the bottom three for weakest magnetic fields ever detected in a pulsar star.
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Scientists believe this pulsar star cannibalized its smaller, black widow, companion star that we mentioned earlier, leaving behind a remnant of what is thought to be a helium white dwarf star.
“The remnant of a dwarf star orbits the pulsar at just 1.3 times the Earth-Moon distance in only 75 minutes at a speed of more than 700 kilometers per second,” Nieder said. “This unusual duo might have originated from an extremely close binary system, in which matter originally flowed from the companion star onto the neutron star, increasing its mass and causing it to rotate faster and faster while simultaneously dampening its magnetic field.”
Basically, the smaller Black Widow star’s matter continuously flowed to the larger neutron star while the two rotated through space together and the neutron star’s mass grew as a result. Over time, the system became what it is today: a giant neutron star with a mass twice as large as our Sun’s and a much smaller, Black Widow star that’s about 1% the mass of our Sun.
Maybe we’ll learn more about this in Phase 4 of the MCU. In the meantime, catch up on some other space news like this story about possible signs of life detected on Venus and this story about the discovery of 139 new minor planets at the edge of our solar system. Read about how the moon is rusting after that and then read about this parallel universe discovered by scientists where time runs backward.
Wesley LeBlanc is a freelance news writer and guide maker for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @LeBlancWes.