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A 'Jekyll And Hyde' Cosmic Mass Is Flipping Between Alter Egos

A cosmic mass nearly 20,000 years away has transitioned identities in just over a decade, despite the process usually taking billions of years.

Observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the National Science Foundation’s Karl F. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) have found a double star system that's making rapid changes.

Located about 20,000 light-years away from Earth, the double (or binary) star system Terzan 5, is flipping between "alter egos", NASA said.

A binary star system has a neutron star -- created from the dense remains of a supernova explosion -- that is in close orbit around another star which has either the same or less mass than that of the Sun.

Terzan 5 (right), low, medium and high-energy X-rays detected by Chandra are colored red, green and blue. On the left, A Hubble image showing the same field in optical light. Image: NASA

In this case, the heavier neutron is pulling material from the lower-mass star to create a disc.

"Astronomers can detect these so-called accretion discs by their bright X-ray light, and refer to these objects as 'low-mass X-ray binaries'," NASA said.

The neutron star increases its rotation rate as the material from the disc falls onto its surface, eventually rotating hundreds of times a second and growing to have more mass than the Sun.

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Over time, the amount of matter collecting on the surface slows down before being dragged off by the magnetic field from the neutron star and becoming a millisecond pulsar.

"While scientists expect the complete evolution of a low-mass X-ray binary into a millisecond pulsar should happen over several billion years, there is a period of time when the system can switch rapidly between these two states," NASA said.

Incredibly, Terzan 5 has completed this transformation from a low-mass X-ray binary system to a millisecond pulsar and back again in just over a decade.

In 2003, data from Chandra showed Terzan 5 was acting as a low-mass X-ray binary system.

But between 2009 and 2014, Chandra data showed the system was acting like a millisecond pulsar.

"The amount of radio and X-ray emission and the corresponding spectra (the amount of emission at different wavelengths) agree with expectations for a millisecond pulsar," NASA said.

By 2016, Chandra Observatory said it was back to being a low-mass X-ray binary system again.

Researchers plan on studying the X-rays emitted by Terzan 5 further to confirm the 'Jekyll and Hyde' phenomenon.