On March 19, 2019, NASA announced that astronomers using NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and the Very Large Array discovered a “Cannonball” pulsar on a swift trajectory, blazing through the Milky Way at 2.5 million miles per hour, five times faster than the average pulsar, and quicker than 99% of those with similar speeds. To put into context, this pulsar could make the trip from Earth to the Moon in 6 minutes. Take that Millennium Falcon.

A pulsar(vanilla) is highly dense rotating neutron star, the collapsed core of a massive star at the end of its life cycle. Pulsars release electromagnetic radiation and are thought to be a source of ultra-high-energy cosmic waves observed emitting from the unknown.

Volunteers with the citizen-science project Einstein@Home discovered the Cannonball Pulsar, designated PSR J0002+6216, in 2017 when processing through 10,000 years-worth of Fermi Gamma-Ray data, identifying 23 gamma-ray pulsars. The information revealed Pulsar J0002 residing 6,500 light-years away from Earth in the Cassiopeia constellation, spinning 8.7 times per second while creating a pulse of gamma rays with each full rotation. PSR J0002 barrels on a trajectory where it will eventually escape the galaxy, leaving behind a 13 light-year-long tail of magnetic energy and particles aimed directly at CTB1, a supernova remnant considered its place of origin, some 53 light-years away. The rapid spinning of the cannonball pulsar traversing through interstellar gas produces shock-waves that created this radio-emitting tail which astronomers detected at radio wavelengths using the Very Large Array. 

By incorporating a method called the pulsar timing technique, the project team accurately measured J0002’s speed and trajectory across our planet’s line of sight, leading the research team to conclude with supporting data that the supernova event that caused CTB 1 effectively accelerated the cannon ball pulsar, all of which occurred 10,000 years ago, though many questions remain. Astronomers can only speculate exactly how the pulsar accelerated to such high speeds, though follow up observations with the Very Large Array and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory hope to shed some light on this intriguing cosmic mystery.

CTB 1 supernova remnant resembles a ghostly bubble in this image, which combines new 1.5 gigahertz observations from the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope (orange, near center) with older observations from the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory’s Canadian Galactic Plane Survey (1.42 gigahertz, magenta and yellow; 408 megahertz, green) and infrared data (blue). The VLA data clearly reveal the straight, glowing trail from pulsar J0002+6216 and the curved rim of the remnant’s shell. CTB 1 is about half a degree across, the apparent size of a full Moon. Source: NASA
Credits: Composite by Jayanne English, University of Manitoba, using data from NRAO/F. Schinzel et al., DRAO/Canadian Galactic Plane Survey and NASA/IRAS