What are Quark Stars?

Article Updated: 22 Feb , 2017

We’ve covered the full range of exotic star-type objects in the Universe. Like Pokemon Go, we’ve collected them all. Okay fine, I’m still looking for a Tauros, and so I’ll continue to wander the streets, like a zombie staring at his phone.

Now, according to my attorney, I’ve fulfilled the requirements for shamelessly jumping on a viral bandwagon by mentioning Pokemon Go and loosely connecting it to whatever completely unrelated topic I was working on.

Any further Pokemon Go references would just be shameless attempts to coopt traffic to my channel, and I’m better than that.

It was pretty convenient, though, and it was easy enough to edit out the references to Quark on Deep Space 9 and replace them with Pokemon Go. Of course, there is a new Star Trek movie out, so maybe I miscalculated.

Anyway, now that we got that out of the way. Back to rare and exotic stellar objects.

The white dwarf G29-38 (NASA)

The white dwarf G29-38. Credit: NASA

There are the white dwarfs, the remnants of stars like our Sun which have passed through the main sequence phase, and now they’re cooling down.

There are the neutron stars and pulsars formed in a moment when stars much more massive than our Sun die in a supernova explosion. Their gravity and density is so great that all the protons and electrons from all the atoms are mashed together. A single teaspoon of neutron star weighs 10 million tons.

And there are the black holes. These form from even more massive supernova explosions, and the gravity and density is so strong they overcome the forces holding atoms themselves together.

White dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes. These were all theorized by physicists, and have all been discovered by observational astronomers. We know they’re out there.

Is that it? Is that all the exotic forms that stars can take?  That we know of, yes, however, there are a few even more exotic objects which are still just theoretical. These are the quark stars. But what are they?

Artist concept of a neutron star. Credit: NASA

Artist concept of a neutron star. Credit: NASA

Let’s go back to the concept of a neutron star. According to the theories, neutron stars have such intense gravity they crush protons and electrons together into neutrons. The whole star is made of neutrons, inside and out. If you add more mass to the neutron star, you cross this line where it’s too much mass to hold even the neutrons together, and the whole thing collapses into a black hole.

A star like our Sun has layers. The outer convective zone, then the radiative zone, and then the core down in the center, where all the fusion takes place.

Could a neutron star have layers? What’s at the core of the neutron star, compared to the surface?

The idea is that a quark star is an intermediate stage in between neutron stars and black holes. It has too much mass at its core for the neutrons to hold their atomness. But not enough to fully collapse into a black hole.

The difference between a neutron star and a quark star (Chandra)

The difference between a neutron star and a quark star. Credit: Chandra

In these objects, the underlying quarks that form the neutrons are further compressed. “Up” and “down” quarks are squeezed together into “strange” quarks. Since it’s made up of “strange” quarks, physicists call this “strange matter”. Neutron stars are plenty strange, so don’t give it any additional emotional weight just because it’s called strange matter. If they happened to merge into “charm” quarks, then it would be called “charm matter”, and I’d be making Alyssa Milano references.

And like I said, these are still theoretical, but there is some evidence that they might be out there. Astronomers have discovered a class of supernova that give off about 100 times the energy of a regular supernova explosion. Although they could just be mega supernovae, there’s another intriguing possibility.

They might be heavy, unstable neutron stars that exploded a second time, perhaps feeding from a binary companion star. As they hit some limit, they converting from a regular neutron star to one made of strange quarks.

But if quark stars are real, they’re very small. While a regular neutron star is 25 km across, a quark star would only be 16 km across, and this is right at the edge of becoming a black hole.

A neutron star (~25km across) next to a quark star (~16km across). Original Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

A neutron star (~25km across) next to a quark star (~16km across). Original Image Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

If quark stars do exist, they probably don’t last long. It’s an intermediate step between a neutron star, and the final black hole configuration. A last gasp of a star as its event horizon forms.

It’s intriguing to think there are other exotic objects out there, formed as matter is compressed into tighter and tighter configurations, as the different limits of physics are reached and then crossed. Astronomers will keep searching for quark stars, and I’ll let you know if they find them.

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4 Responses

  1. FarAwayLongAgo says:

    I think quark stars are thought to be cores of some neutron stars. That they don’t fly around pure quark (but who knows). Because the universe is so old, all its objects are unique. One cannot hang around out there for billions of years without getting a history like no one else has, within a Hubble bubble. Twitter doesn’t work well across light years to conform everyone in the galaxy to the same century of thinking.

    Black holes are dimension demolishers. But neutron stars still exist here in our universe, they haven’t left us. Makes them even more scary. Like a Solar mass atom, the magnetic field of which destroys all chemistry within reach.

  2. Stephen Farrugia says:

    The true composition of a Neutron star is unknown and what we read is mostly conjecture. The simple argument is this: how does a big Star collapse to a Neutron Star when the electro-magnetic force is ten to the power of 39 times stronger than gravity. Why does it not blow itself to pieces when so many protons are squeezed together so closely? The answer is simply – it has become neutral, see?? a Neutron star, Eureka!!
    Now look up why a Neutron Star has a magnetic field and you will learn about several other layers that has to be there to make it THE STAR we want it to be.
    Quark Stars? Figment of the imagination.

  3. jcwi63 says:

    Just for those who are wondering what city is under the picture of the neutron and quark stars, it is Montreal. But unfortunately, the scale of the stars does not correlate to the scale of the map of Montreal. The quark star against the city would be only 6 km wide. If you’re going to make a graphic to represent size, can it not be to scale?

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