The rings appear as circles around Circinus X-1, a double star system in the plane of our galaxy containing a neutron star, the dense remnant of a massive star pulverized in a supernova explosion. The neutron star is in orbit with another massive star, and is shrouded by thick clouds of interstellar gas and dust.
“We like to call this system the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but this one has nothing to do with Sauron,” said Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
Researchers determined that the rings are echoes from a burst of X-rays emitted by Circinus X-1 in late 2013. The burst reflected off intervening clouds of dust, with some reflected X-rays arriving to Earth from different angles at a time delay of about one to three months, creating the observed rings.
By comparing the Chandra data to prior images of dust clouds detected by the Mopra radio telescope in Australia, the researchers determined that each ring was created by the X-ray reflections off a different dust cloud. The radio data provides the distance to the different clouds and the X-ray echo determines the location of Circinus X-1 relative to the clouds. An analysis of the rings with the combined radio data allows researchers to use simple geometry to accurately determine the distance of Circinus X-1 from Earth.
The behavior of Circinus X-1 is something astronomers generally see more often in systems containing black holes than in systems like Circinus X-1 that contain a neutron star.
“Circinus X-1 acts in some ways like a neutron star and in some like a black hole,” said Catherine Braiding, also of the University of New South Wales. “It’s extremely unusual to find an object that has such a blend of these properties.”
The researchers also determined that the speed of the jet of high-energy particles produced by the system is at least 99.9% of the speed of light. This extreme velocity is usually associated with jets produced by a black hole.
Circinus X-1 is thought to have originally become an X-ray source about 2,500 years ago, as seen from Earth. This makes Circinus X-1 the youngest so-called X-ray binary known.
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