Tiny Star Shoots Out Huge Beam of Matter, Antimatter 40 Trillion Miles Long

Researchers have imaged an enormous beam of matter and antimatter shooting out of a tiny, collapsed star that stretches for an incredible 40 trillion miles.

The record-breaking beam is emanating from a pulsar—a rapidly rotating neutron star with a strong magnetic field.

Pulsars are extremely dense—while most have a diameter of only 12 miles or less, they can have masses greater than that of the sun. Neutron stars form when the core of a violently exploding star—known as a supernova—collapses inwards.

The pulsar from which the record-breaking beam is emanating from is called PSR J2030+4415, which is located around 1,600 light-years from Earth. The city-sized star, which measures around 10 miles across, is spinning about three times per second.

The beam, otherwise known as a filament, was first spotted in 2020, but at the time, astronomers were not aware of its full length.

New observations conducted by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory in February and November 2021 have now revealed the full extent of the record-breaking filament—indicating it that it is around three times longer than the initial data showed.

The full size of the filament was not immediately apparent when it was first discovered because it extended beyond the edge of the Chandra detector. The latest findings are described in a study that will appear in The Astrophysical Journal.

"The novel thing about this discovery is how long (on the sky) this pulsar filament is," co-author of the study, Roger Romani from Stanford University, told Newsweek. "It is more than twice as long as the previous longest example—but only a few of these are known."

The other co-author of the study, Martijn de Vries—also from Stanford—said in a statement: "It's amazing that a pulsar that's only 10 miles across can create a structure so big that we can see it from thousands of light-years away. With the same relative size, if the filament stretched from New York to Los Angeles the pulsar would be about 100 times smaller than the tiniest object visible to the naked eye."

The researchers say that the latest discovery could help to explain the surprisingly large numbers of positrons—the antimatter counterpart to electrons—that are thought to be found throughout the Milky Way.

"[The filament] is carrying a stream of high-energy electrons and positrons," Romani told Newsweek. "So, the physics importance is that these pulsar filaments may help explain the otherwise mysterious preponderance of positrons (anti-electrons) seen in cosmic rays here at Earth."

Antimatter is similar to ordinary matter but the electrical charge of the particles is reversed. For example, a positron is positively charged, whereas an electron has negative charge.

The vast majority of the universe consists of ordinary matter. But detectors on Earth continue to identify evidence for large numbers of positrons in cosmic rays—high-speed particles that travel through space. Most cosmic rays come from sources within the Milky Way, while others originate from the sun or sources outside the galaxy.

The authors say that pulsars like PSR J2030+4415 may be one possible source for this antimatter. According to the study, the pulsar may be leaking positrons into the galaxy.

Artist's illustration of a pulsar
Stock image showing an artist's illustration of a pulsar. Researchers have imaged an enormous beam of matter and antimatter shooting out of a pulsar located around 1,600 light-years from Earth. iStock