So neutron stars may not be the densest exotic objects in the cosmos after all. Recent observations of ultra-luminous supernovae suggest that these explosions may create an even more exotic remnant. Neutron stars can form after a star ends its life; measuring only 16 km across, these small but massive objects (one and a half times the mass of the Sun) may become too big for the structure of neutrons to hold it together. What happens if the structures of the neutrons inside a neutron star collapse? Quark stars (a.k.a. “Strange” stars) may be the result, smaller and denser than neutron stars, possibly explaining some abnormally bright supernovae observed recently…
Three very luminous supernovae have been observed and Canadian researchers are hot on the trail as to what may have caused them. These huge explosions occur at the point when a massive star dies, leaving a neutron star or black hole in their wake. Neutron stars are composed of neutron-degenerate matter and will often be observed as rapidly spinning pulsars emitting radio waves and X-rays. If the star was massive enough, a black hole might be formed after the detonation, but is there a phase between the mass of a neutron star and a black hole?
It appears there might be a smaller, more massive star on the block, a star composed not of hadrons (i.e. neutrons), but of the stuff that makes up hadrons: quarks. They are thought to be one step up the star-mass ladder, the point at which the mass of the supernova remnant is slightly too big to be a neutron star, but too small to form a black hole. They are composed of ultra-dense quark matter, and as neutrons break down it is thought some of their “up” and “down” quarks are converted into “strange” quarks, forming a state known as “strange matter.” It is for this reason that these compact objects are also known as strange stars.
Quark stars may be hypothetical objects, but the evidence is stacking up for their existence. For example, supernovae SN2005gj, SN2006gy and SN2005ap are all approximately 100 times brighter than the “standard model” for supernova explosions, leading the Canadian team to model what would happen if a heavy neutron star were to become unstable, crushing the neutrons into a soup of strange matter. Although these supernovae may have formed neutron stars, they became unstable and collapsed again, releasing vast amounts of energy from the hadron bonds creating a “Quark-Nova”, converting the oversized neutron star into a quark star.
If quark stars are behind these ultra-luminous supernovae, they may be viewed as super-sized hadrons, not held together by the nuclear strong force, but by gravity. Now there’s a thought!