Scientists at NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) satellite have made a groundbreaking discovery that may shed light on the mysterious phenomenon of polarized X-rays radiating from magnetars. These magnetars, a type of neutron star with an intense magnetic field, have puzzled scientists for years. However, using the IXPE satellite, researchers were able to observe that lower- and higher-energy X-rays from magnetars exhibited different polarizations.
This perplexing observation led scientists to believe that a phenomenon called “photon metamorphosis” may be at play. Photon metamorphosis is a theoretical transformation of X-ray photons that has never been directly observed before. However, it is predicted by quantum electrodynamics (QED), a branch of physics that explores the interactions between light and matter.
The findings of the IXPE mission build upon calculations made by astrophysicists from Cornell University two decades ago. These calculations were based on theoretical predictions from QED. To corroborate their theories, the scientists incorporated recent observations of the magnetar 4U 0142+61.
According to quantum electrodynamics, as X-ray photons emerge from the thin atmosphere of hot, magnetized gas surrounding the neutron star, they pass through a region called vacuum resonance. In vacuum resonance, photons are thought to convert into pairs of virtual electrons and positrons. These virtual particles are influenced by the intense magnetic field of the magnetar.
Combining this process with a phenomenon known as plasma birefringence leads to the swinging of high-energy X-ray polarities by 90 degrees relative to low-energy X-rays. The IXPE mission confirmed this polarization swing in the magnetar 4U 0142+61. However, it did not observe this phenomenon in another magnetar with an even stronger magnetic field.
The researchers believe that their findings not only provide insight into the behavior of magnetars but also help constrain their magnetic field and rotation. Additionally, these observations suggest that the magnetar’s atmosphere is likely composed of partially ionized heavy elements.
Studying X-rays from extreme objects like magnetars and black holes can provide valuable insights into the behavior of matter under extreme conditions. It enhances our understanding of the universe and helps us unravel the mysteries of these enigmatic celestial entities.
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