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Southampton alumna's neutron star discovery published in Nature Astronomy

Published: 25 May 2018
Illustration
Southampton alumna Liz Bartlett with the primary mirror of the telescope she operates for the European Southern Observatory in Chile

Astronomer Liz Bartlett and a team at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have located a concealed neutron star in a much-studied supernova remnant.

Their research, published recently in Nature Astronomy, represents the first discovery of an isolated neutron star with a low magnetic field beyond our galaxy.

The finding was driven by new data from the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, which highlighted a donut-shaped cloud of gas in the supernova remnant, known as known as 1E0102.2-7219, located 200,000 light years away in the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy. The location of the stellar corpse was then verified by examining existing observations from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which Liz has worked with since the year abroad programme during her undergraduate study in Southampton.

“Whilst there are many supernova remnants out there, it can be very difficult to find what remains of the exploded star; the neutron star or black hole. They are intrinsically very faint and buried in supernova material,” Liz explains. “Knowing the current location and properties of the central compact object gives us more clues as to the dynamics of the explosion and the nature of the progenitor star, which in turn can further our understanding of stellar evolution as a whole.”

“With MUSE we identified a peculiar ring of light: a gas cloud expanding slowly within the depths of numerous other fast-moving filaments of gas and dust,” Liz adds. “This had never been seen before now, simply because we didn't have the instrumental capabilities. When we looked at the archival data from Chandra, we saw a faint point source perfectly centred on the ring.”

Liz completed undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the University of Southampton before starting an international career that has most recently taken her to ESO in Santiago, Chile. She graduated with an MPhys Physics with Astrophysics with a Year Abroad in 2009 before returning for a PhD which she finished in 2013.

“Quite simply, the year abroad programme is why I am here today,” she explains. “My research is still linked to work I did back then. The Chandra X-ray Observatory used for this most recent study is run from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), where the year abroad programme is based. I wouldn't be where I am now without my year at the CfA.”

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