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Magnetar spin-down glitch clearing the way for FRB-like bursts and a pulsed radio episode

Abstract

Magnetars are a special subset of the isolated neutron star family, with X-ray and radio emission mainly powered by the decay of their immense magnetic fields. Many attributes of magnetars remain poorly understood: spin-down glitches or the sudden reductions in the star’s angular momentum, radio bursts reminiscent of extragalactic fast radio bursts (FRBs) and transient pulsed radio emission lasting months to years. Here we unveil the detection of a large spin-down glitch event (fractional change in spin frequency \(| {{\Delta }}\nu /\nu | =5.{8}_{-1.6}^{+2.6}\times 1{0}^{-6}\)) from the magnetar SGR 1935+2154 on 5 October 2020 (±1 day). We find no change to the source-persistent surface thermal or magnetospheric X-ray behaviour, nor is there evidence of strong X-ray bursting activity. Yet, in the subsequent days, the magnetar emitted three FRB-like radio bursts followed by a month-long episode of pulsed radio emission. Given the rarity of spin-down glitches and radio signals from magnetars, their approximate synchronicity suggests an association, providing pivotal clues to their origin and triggering mechanisms with ramifications to the broader magnetar and FRB populations. We postulate that impulsive crustal plasma shedding close to the magnetic pole generates a wind that combs out magnetic field lines, rapidly reducing the star’s angular momentum while temporarily altering the magnetospheric field geometry to permit the pair creation needed to precipitate radio emission.

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Fig. 1: Temporal evolution of the SGR 1935+2154 X-ray pulse phase.
Fig. 2: Evolution of the temporal and spectral properties of SGR 1935+2154 during the 1 October 2020 to 27 November 2020 period.
Fig. 3: One- and two-dimensional posterior probability density distributions from a 10,000-step run of the emcee sampler of the parameters of our timing model (including a glitch).
Fig. 4: Evolution of the timing properties of SGR 1935+2154 from 1 October 2020 to 27 November 2020.
Fig. 5: Broadband spectra of SGR 1935+2154.
Fig. 6: Pulse profiles in the 1–3 keV energy band at different epochs during our October/November monitoring.
Fig. 7: The October 4 NuSTAR light curve of SGR 1935+2154 in the 3–30 keV range.

Data availability

NICER raw data (level 1) and calibrated (level 2) data files were generated at the Goddard Space Flight Center large-scale facility. These data files are publicly available and can be found at https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/FTP/nicer/data/obs/. XMM-Newton and NuSTAR data files are also publicly available from the XMM-Newton Science Archive (https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/W3Browse/xmm-newton/xmmmaster.html) and the NuSTAR Master Catalog table (https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/W3Browse/all/numaster.html). Light curve and spectral data presented in the various plots of the manuscript are available from the corresponding authors upon request.

Code availability

Reduction and analysis of the data were conducted using publicly available codes provided by HEASARC, which is a service of the Astrophysics Science Division at NASA/GSFC and the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. For NICER and NuSTAR, we used NICERDAS version v.008c and NUSTARDAS version v.2.1.1, respectively, part of HEASOFT 6.29c (https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/software/lheasoft). For XMM-Newton, we utilize the publicly available SAS version 19.1.0. Spectral analysis was conducted using Xspec version 12.12.0g (https://heasarc.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/xanadu/xspec/). The emcee MCMC sampler is a public software available at https://emcee.readthedocs.io/en/stable/. Custom codes for the timing analysis routines are available upon reasonable request from the corresponding authors.

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Acknowledgements

A portion of this work was supported by NASA through the NICER mission and the Astrophysics Explorers Program. This research has made use of data and software provided by the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), which is a service of the Astrophysics Science Division at NASA/GSFC and the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. G.Y.’s research is supported by an appointment to the NASA Postdoctoral Program at the Goddard Space Flight Center, administered by Oak Ridge Associated Universities under contract with NASA. M.G.B. acknowledges the support of the National Science Foundation through grant AST-1813649. A.B.P. is a McGill Space Institute (MSI) Fellow and a Fonds de Recherche du Quebec–Nature et Technologies (FRQNT) postdoctoral fellow. S.G. acknowledges the support of the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES). T.E. acknowledges Hakubi projects of Kyoto University and RIKEN, and is supported by JSPS/ MEXT KAKENHI grant numbers 15H00845 and 17K18776. W.C.G.H. acknowledges support through grant 80NSSC22K0397 from NASA. A.B. is supported by a Juan de la Cierva fellowship. C.-P.H. acknowledges support from the Ministry of Science and Technology in Taiwan through grant MOST 109-2112-M-018-009-MY3. W.A.M acknowledges support from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a Research and Technology Development Grant through a contract with NASA. US government sponsorship is acknowledged. G.Y. thanks V. Kaspi and T. Strohmayer for providing constructive comments on the manuscript and P. Ray for guidance on the timing analysis.

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G.Y. performed the data analysis and contributed to the writing of the associated text. M.G.B. led the interpretative elements and was responsible for the writing of the associated text. A.K.H., T.E., Z.W., W.C.G.H., S.G., A.B., A.B.P., T.G., A.J.v.d.H., C.-P.H., E.G., G.K.J., C.K., L.L. and W.A.M. contributed to the discussion and editing of the manuscript. A.B.P. and G.Y. were responsible for acquiring the majority of the NICER data through the Director’s Discretionary Time. E.G. and L.L. were responsible for acquiring part of the XMM-Newton and NuSTAR data. A.B. was responsible for acquiring the XMM-Newton October 1 data and part of the NICER data. K.G. is the NICER principal investigator; he approved the Director’s Discretionary Time observations. Z.A. is the NICER project scientist and deputy principal investigator; he contributed to the scheduling of the NICER observations.

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Correspondence to G. Younes or M. G. Baring.

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Younes, G., Baring, M.G., Harding, A.K. et al. Magnetar spin-down glitch clearing the way for FRB-like bursts and a pulsed radio episode. Nat Astron (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-022-01865-y

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