Search for a star ends in success

Ralp Eatough
Ralp Eatough

An astronomer from Hebden Bridge is on top of the world after discovering a rare type of star - a magnetar - 27,000 light years from Earth.

Ralph Eatough, 30, works at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany.

Ralph leads a team of scientists who have used the magnetar, a type of neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field, to measure the properties of the black hole at the centre of our galaxy, The Milky Way, something which had previously been impossible.

The discovery has been published in ‘Nature’, the most prestigious science journal on the planet.

Ralph, from MPIfR’s Fundamental Physics Research department, said: “NASA telescopes were the first to identify the object but we were the first people to see the radio waves from it. What’s interesting is the radio signal is twisted which is caused by a strong magnetic field.

“People have been looking for this for a very long time because we can also use stars like these to test Einstein’s theories so I was very excited when we found it. It’s 27,000 light years from Earth and measures about 20km across.

“As the radio waves travel towards us we can learn about the material it’s travelling through. It’s very strongly magnetised and that affects how well the black hole can swallow its surroundings.

“This has implications for how galaxies are formed and perhaps how many stars are formed in these galaxies.”

Ralph’s team pointed its 100-metre Effelsberg radio telescope in the direction of the galactic centre.

Ralph said: “On our first attempt the pulsar was not clearly visible, but some pulsars are stubborn and require a few observations to be detected.

“The second time we looked, the pulsar had become very active in the radio band and was very bright. I could hardly believe that we had finally detected a pulsar in the galactic centre!”

The research team went to a lot of effort to prove it was a real object in deep space and not due to man-made radio interference created on Earth.