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Astronomers observe rare newborn star

A newly found neutron star, estimated to be just 240 years old, is a source of powerful X-ray and radio wave emissions. Photo by ESO
A newly found neutron star, estimated to be just 240 years old, is a source of powerful X-ray and radio wave emissions. Photo by ESO

June 17 (UPI) -- Astronomers have spotted a rare newborn star located 16,000 light-years away.

The neutron star, estimated to be just 240 years old, was first spotted in early March by NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory. The star made its presence known with a massive eruption of X-rays.

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Shortly after the X-rays were spotted, astronomers in the United States and Europe trained NASA's NuSTAR telescope and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton observatory on the stellar object.

The observations, detailed Wednesday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the unique physical attributes of the neutron star.

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Neutron stars are the super dense collapsed cores of giant stars -- what's leftover after massive stars die explosive, fiery deaths. The stars are also some of the densest objects in the universe, causing their atoms to behave in strange ways.

The newly discovered neutron star is especially unusual, being so young and powerful. The star, dubbed Swift J1818.0-1607, boasts a magnetic field 1,000 times more powerful than the magnetic fields typical of neutron stars.

Swift J1818.0-1607 is part of a unique group of neutron stars known as magnetars.

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Scientists were able to estimate the neutron star's age by studying the object's physical characteristics. The research suggests Swift J1818.0-1607 is the youngest magnetar yet discovered.

"This object is showing us an earlier time in a magnetar's life than we've ever seen before, very shortly after its formation," Nanda Rea, a researcher at the Institute of Space Sciences in Barcelona, said in a news release.

Of the 3,000 neutron stars found by astronomers, there are only 31 confirmed magnetars. Astrophysicists suspect that magnetars hold the answers to myriad mysteries of the physical world.

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"Maybe if we understand the formation story of these objects, we'll understand why there is such a huge difference between the number of magnetars we've found and the total number of known neutron stars," Rea said.

Because most magnetar models suggest the unusual stars change their behavior as they get older, studying a young magnetar will help scientists refine their models.

Magnetars are known as sources of extremely powerful eruptions of energy, and models suggest the a variety of mechanisms can trigger outbursts.

An eruption of X-rays allowed scientists to locate Swift J1818.0-1607. Now, scientists know the magnetar emits long-lived radio beams, too, making it an even rare radio pulsar.

Some magnetars also emit gamma rays, the highest energy form of light in the cosmos.

Now that astronomers know where Swift J1818.0-1607 is, they will watch and wait for another outburst -- ready to train their telescopes on the neutron star for closer observation.

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