eso0029 — Science Release
The Mystery of the Lonely Neutron Star
11 September 2000: Deep inside the Milky Way, an old and lonely neutron star plows its way through interstellar space. Known as RX J1856.5-3754, it measures only ~ 20 km across. Although it is unusually hot for its age, about 700,000 °C, earlier observations did not reveal any activity at all, contrary to all other neutron stars known so far. In order to better understand this extreme type of object, a detailed study of RX J1856.5-3754 was undertaken by Marten van Kerkwijk (Institute of Astronomy of the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands) and Shri Kulkarni (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA). To the astronomers' delight and surprise, images and spectra obtained with the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) now show a small nearby cone-shaped ("bowshock") nebula. It shines in the light from hydrogen atoms and is obviously a product of some kind of interaction with this strange star.