Astronomers Find Progenitor of Magnetic Monster
Research team including NOIRLab astronomer identify highly unusual star that may evolve into a magnetar — the most magnetic object in the known Universe
17 August 2023
A team of researchers, including NOIRLab astronomer André-Nicolas Chené, has found a highly unusual star that has the most powerful magnetic field ever found in a massive star — and that may become one of the most magnetic objects in the Universe: a variant of a neutron star known as a magnetar. This finding marks the discovery of a new type of astronomical object — a massive magnetic helium star — and sheds light on the origin of magnetars.
Neutron stars, the compact remains of a massive star following a supernova explosion, are the densest matter in the Universe. Some neutron stars, known as magnetars, also claim the record for the strongest magnetic fields of any object. How magnetars, which are a mere 15 kilometers across, form and produce such colossal magnetic fields remains a mystery.
New observations by a team of astronomers, including NSF’s NOIRLab’s André-Nicolas Chené, may shed important light on the origin of these magnetic powerhouses. Using various telescopes around the globe, including the Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope (CFHT) on Maunakea , the researchers have identified a new type of astronomical object — a massive magnetic helium star (an unusual variant of a Wolf-Rayet star), which may be the precursor of a magnetar.
“For the first time, a strong magnetic field was discovered in a massive helium star,” said Chené. “Our study suggests that this helium star will end its life as a magnetar.”
Despite having been observed for more than a century by astronomers, little was known about the true nature of this star, known as HD 45166, beyond the fact that it is rich in helium, somewhat more massive than our Sun, and part of a binary system.
“This star became a bit of an obsession of mine,” said Tomer Shenar, an astronomer at the University of Amsterdam and lead author of a study published in the journal Science. Having studied similar helium-rich stars before, Shenar was intrigued by the unusual characteristics of HD 45166, which has some of the characteristics of a Wolf-Rayet star, but with a unique spectral signature. He suspected that magnetic fields could explain these perplexing characteristics. "I remember having a Eureka moment while reading the literature: ‘What if the star is magnetic?’,” he said.
Shenar, Chené, and their collaborators set out to test this hypothesis by taking new spectroscopic observations of this star system with the CFHT. These observations revealed that this star has a phenomenally powerful magnetic field, about 43,000 gauss , the most powerful magnetic field ever found in a massive star. By also studying its interactions with its companion star, the team were able to make precise estimates of its mass and age.
The researchers speculate that, unlike other helium stars that eventually evolve from a red supergiant, this particular star was likely created by the merger of a pair of intermediate-mass stars.
“This is a very specific scenario, and it raises the question of how many magnetars come from similar systems and how many come from other types of systems,” said Chené.
In a few million years, HD 45166, which is located 3000 light-years away in the constellation Monoceros (the Unicorn), will explode as a very bright, but not particularly energetic, supernova. During this explosion, its core will contract, trapping and concentrating the star’s already daunting magnetic field lines. The result will be a neutron star with a magnetic field of around 100 trillion gauss — the most powerful type of magnet in the Universe.
“We thought that the most likely magnetar candidates would come from the most massive of stars,” said Chené. “What this research shows us is that stars that are much less massive can still become a magnetar, if the conditions are just right.”
 The team also relied on key archive data taken with the Fiber-fed Extended Range Optical Spectrograph (FEROS) at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.
 Gauss is a unit of measurement of magnetic induction, also known as magnetic flux density (essentially, a measure of magnetic strength). The Sun’s typical polar magnetic field is 1–2 gauss, while sunspots can achieve a magnetic field strength of around 3000 gauss.
Reference: Shenar, T., Wade, G., Marchat, P., et al. 2023, A massive helium star with a sufficiently strong magnetic field to form a magnetar, Science, DOI 10.1126.
NSF’s NOIRLab, the US center for ground-based optical-infrared astronomy, operates the international Gemini Observatory (a facility of NSF, NRC–Canada, ANID–Chile, MCTIC–Brazil, MINCyT–Argentina, and KASI–Republic of Korea), Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), the Community Science and Data Center (CSDC), and Vera C. Rubin Observatory (operated in cooperation with the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory). It is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with NSF and is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. The astronomical community is honored to have the opportunity to conduct astronomical research on Iolkam Du’ag (Kitt Peak) in Arizona, on Maunakea in Hawai‘i, and on Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachón in Chile. We recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that these sites have to the Tohono O'odham Nation, to the Native Hawaiian community, and to the local communities in Chile, respectively.
Tel: +1 202 236 6324
University of Amsterdam