Pulsar spins from an instability in the accretion shock of supernovae
Rotation-powered radio pulsars are born with inferred initial rotation periods of order 300 ms (some as short as 20 ms) in core-collapse supernovae. In the traditional picture, this fast rotation is the result of conservation of angular momentum during the collapse of a rotating stellar core. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that pulsar spin is directly correlated with the rotation of the progenitor star. So far, however, stellar theory has not been able to explain the distribution of pulsar spins, suggesting that the birth rotation is either too slow or too fast. Here we report a robust instability of the stalled accretion shock in core-collapse supernovae that is able to generate a strong rotational flow in the vicinity of the accreting proto-neutron star. Sufficient angular momentum is deposited on the proto-neutron star to generate a final spin period consistent with observations, even beginning with spherically symmetrical initial conditions. This provides a new mechanism for the generation of neutron star spin and weakens, if not breaks, the assumed correlation between the rotational periods of supernova progenitor cores and pulsar spin.