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NASA telescope spots a cosmic 'cannonball' hurtling through space

If you could hitch a ride, it would take you from San Francisco to Seattle in one second.

Jayanne English, University of Manitoba/NRAO/F. Schinzel et al., DRAO/Canadian Galactic Plane Survey and NASA/IRAS

NASA astronomers have discovered a pulsar zipping though space like a hyperspeed cosmic cannonball, travelling at 2.5 million miles per hour -- five times faster than your average pulsar.

At that speed, it's travelling at a startling 694 miles per second. If you could somehow build a cannon capable of firing this pulsar from the starboard side of your pirate ship in the Atlantic Ocean, it would speed around the Earth and hit your port side 35 seconds later. Arrrr!

Pirate ships aside, a pulsar is the rapidly rotating, dense star left behind in the wake of a massive supernova explosion. Astronomers believe that the explosion can send the pulsar hurtling through space like a cannonball. This one, named PSR J0002+6216, was discovered using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which originally launched to space in 2008, and a suite of Earth-based radio telescopes known as the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array.

PSR J0002+6216 -- or "J0002" -- is not like most of those other, standard, boring, pulsars we've seen before. No, J0002, is like the Sonic the Hedgehog version of a pulsar -- faster than 99 percent of those we've measured in the past. Thanks to Fermi, which launched in 2008, there is a decade of data with which to analyze J0002, meaning the research team could provide an accurate measurement of its movements.

"The longer the data set, the more powerful the pulsar timing technique is," said Matthew Kerr, a researcher with the US Naval Research Laboratory. "Fermi's lovely 10-year data set is essentially what made this measurement possible."

J0002 currently lies about 6,500 light-years away in a constellation known as Cassiopeia, and 53 light-years away from the remnants of a huge stellar explosion known as CTB 1. That explosion took place around 10,000 years ago and resulted in a rapidly expanding bubble of gas that engulfed the pulsar.

But around 5,000 years ago, the incredibly fast pulsar would have burst though the ghostly gas cloud, and continued speeding away, resulting in the fabulous image at the top of this article showing a streaky, fiery yellow tail. That tail looks small in the image, but it extends 13 light-years behind the speeding cosmic cannonball.

The tail also allows astronomers to trace the origin of the pulsar, giving them a better chance to understand how it formed and how it was ejected from the supernova explosion.

"Further study of this object will help us better understand how these explosions are able to 'kick' neutron stars to such high speed," said Frank Schinzel, a scientist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The pulsar was first discovered in 2017 as part of a citizen-science project known as Einstein@Home. That project uses the processing power of idling computers to search Fermi's mountain of data for hints of a pulsar and, to date, has enabled the discovery of 23.

The work will be published in an upcoming edition of Astrophysical Journal Letters.