Close Look at Cas A Reveals Bizarre ‘Superfluid’

by Anne Minard on February 23, 2011

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UNAM/Ioffe/D. Page, P. Shternin et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has discovered the first direct evidence for a superfluid, a bizarre, friction-free state of matter, at the core of a neutron star.

The image above, released today, shows X-rays from Chandra (red, green, and blue) and optical data from Hubble (gold) of Cassiopeia A, the remains of a massive star that exploded in a supernova. The evidence for superfluid has been found in the dense core of the star left behind, a so-called neutron star. The artist’s illustration in the inset shows a cut-out of the interior of the neutron star, where densities increase from the orange crust to the red core and finally to the inner red ball, the region where the superfluid exists.

Superfluids created in laboratories on Earth exhibit remarkable properties, such as the ability to climb upward and escape airtight containers. When they’re made of charged particles, superfluids are also superconductors, and they allow electric current to flow with no resistance. Such materials on Earth have widespread technological applications like producing the superconducting magnets used for magnetic resonance imaging [MRI].

Two independent research teams have used Chandra data to show that the interior of a neutron star contains superfluid and superconducting matter, a conclusion with important implications for understanding nuclear interactions in matter at the highest known densities. The teams publish their research separately in the journals Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters and Physical Review Letters.

Cas A (RA 23h 23m 26.7s | Dec +58° 49′ 03.00) lies about 11,000 light-years away. Its star exploded about 330 years ago in Earth’s time-frame. A sequence of Chandra observations of the neutron star shows that the now compact object has cooled by about 4 percent over a ten-year period.

“This drop in temperature, although it sounds small, was really dramatic and surprising to see,” said Dany Page of the National Autonomous University in Mexico, leader of one of the two teams. “This means that something unusual is happening within this neutron star.”

Neutron stars contain the densest known matter that is directly observable; one teaspoon of neutron star material weighs six billion tons. The pressure in the star’s core is so high that most of the charged particles, electrons and protons, merge — resulting in a star composed mostly of neutrons.

The new results strongly suggest that the remaining protons in the star’s core are in a superfluid state and, because they carry a charge, also form a superconductor.

Both teams show that the rapid cooling in Cas A is explained by the formation of a neutron superfluid in the core of the neutron star within about the last 100 years as seen from Earth. The rapid cooling is expected to continue for a few decades, and then it should slow down.

“It turns out that Cas A may be a gift from the Universe because we would have to catch a very young neutron star at just the right point in time,” said Page’s co-author Madappa Prakash, from Ohio University. “Sometimes a little good fortune can go a long way in science.”

The onset of superfluidity in materials on Earth occurs at extremely low temperatures near absolute zero, but in neutron stars, it can occur at temperatures near a billion degrees Celsius. Until now there was a very large uncertainty in estimates of this critical temperature. This new research constrains the critical temperature to between one half a billion to just under a billion degrees.

Cas A will allow researchers to test models of how the strong nuclear force, which binds subatomic particles, behaves in ultradense matter. These results are also important for understanding a range of behavior in neutron stars, including “glitches,” neutron star precession and pulsation, magnetar outbursts and the evolution of neutron star magnetic fields.

Sources: Press releases from the Royal Astronomical Society and Harvard. See additional multimedia at NASA’s Chandra page, and the two studies in MNRAS and Phys. Rev. Letters.

 

 

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