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NASA Verifies Light Sources Beyond Physical Limits

The depiction of an ultra-bright X-ray source shows two streams of heated gas being drawn towards the surface of a neutron star. The presence of powerful green magnetic fields could potentially alter the way in which matter and light interact in the vicinity of the neutron star's surface, thereby intensifying its luminosity. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The data confirms that these luminous objects indeed surpass the Eddington limit, and suggests that their intense brightness could be attributed to the ULXs' powerful magnetic fields.

Breaking the Limit: Unraveling the Brightness Puzzle

Astonishingly bright cosmic objects called ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs) have long baffled scientists, as they seemingly exceed the Eddington limit—a physical constraint on an object’s brightness based on its mass—by 100 to 500 times. Observations from NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) have now provided evidence supporting a possible solution to this conundrum.

Unprecedented Measurements Confirm Limit-Breaking Brightness

In a reserch paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, researchers reveal the first-ever measurement of a ULX using NuSTAR. The data confirms that these luminous objects indeed surpass the Eddington limit, and suggests that their intense brightness could be attributed to the ULXs’ powerful magnetic fields. However, as these magnetic fields are billions of times stronger than the most potent magnets on Earth, scientists can only test this hypothesis through observations.

The Significance of Exceeding the Eddington Limit

When an object reaches the Eddington limit, the outward push of light particles, or photons, overcomes the object’s gravitational pull. This is crucial since material falling onto a ULX is the source of its brightness. Initially, scientists believed that ULXs were black holes surrounded by luminous clouds of gas. However, in 2014, NuSTAR data revealed that M82 X-2, a ULX, is actually a less-massive object called a neutron star.

Neutron Stars: The Key to ULX Brightness

Neutron stars form when a star dies and collapses, packing more mass than our Sun into an area roughly the size of a mid-size city. Their extreme density generates a gravitational pull at the surface about 100 trillion times stronger than Earth’s. This force drags in gas and other materials, accelerating them to millions of miles per hour and releasing enormous energy when they collide with the neutron star’s surface. This process produces the high-energy X-ray light detected by NuSTAR.

Shedding Light on M82 X-2’s Brightness

The recent study focused on M82 X-2 and discovered that it is siphoning approximately 9 billion trillion tons of material per year from a nearby star—around 1.5 times the mass of Earth. By determining the amount of material striking the neutron star’s surface, scientists could estimate the ULX’s brightness. Their calculations aligned with independent measurements, confirming that M82 X-2 surpasses the Eddington limit.

Magnetic Fields: The Key to ULXs’ Maximum Brightness

If researchers can validate the brightness of more ULXs, they might disprove a hypothesis suggesting that the apparent brightness of these objects is due to an optical illusion created by strong winds forming a hollow cone around the light source. Instead, an alternative hypothesis backed by the recent study posits that powerful magnetic fields could distort atoms into elongated shapes, reducing photons’ ability to push atoms away and thus increasing an object’s maximum possible brightness.

According to Matteo Bachetti, lead author of the study and astrophysicist at the National Institute of Astrophysics’ Cagliari Observatory in Italy, these observations enable scientists to explore the effects of incredibly strong magnetic fields that are impossible to recreate on Earth. Through these studies, researchers are gradually uncovering the secrets of the universe.

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