The spectacular gravity of neutron stars offers great opportunities for thought experiments. For example, if you dropped an object from a height of 1 meter above a neutron star’s surface, it would hit the surface within a millionth of a second having been accelerated to over 7 million kilometers an hour.
But these days you should first be clear what kind of neutron star you are talking about. With ever more x-ray sensitive equipment scanning the skies, notably the ten year old Chandra space telescope, a surprising diversity of neutron star types are emerging.
The traditional radio pulsar now has a number of diverse cousins, notably magnetars which broadcast huge outbursts of high energy gamma and x-rays. The extraordinary magnetic fields of magnetars invoke a whole new set of thought experiments. If you were within 1000 kilometres of a magnetar, its intense magnetic field would tear you to pieces just from violent perturbation of your water molecules. Even at a safe distance of 200,000 kilometres, it will still wipe all the information off your credit card – which is pretty scary too.
Neutron stars are the compressed remnant of a star left behind after it went supernova. They retain much of that stars angular momentum, but within a highly compressed object only 10 to 20 kilometers in diameter. So, like ice skaters when they pull their arms in – neutron stars spin pretty fast.
Furthermore, compressing a star’s magnetic field into the smaller volume of the neutron star, increases the strength of that magnetic field substantially. However, these strong magnetic fields create drag against the stars’ own stellar wind of charged particles, meaning that all neutron stars are in the process of ‘spinning down’.
This spin down correlates with an increase in luminosity, albeit much of it is in x-ray wavelengths. This is presumably because a fast spin expands the star outwards, while a slower spin lets stellar material compress inwards – so like a bicycle pump it heats up. Hence the name rotation powered pulsar (RPP) for your ‘standard’ neutron stars, where that beam of energy flashing at you once every rotation is a result of the braking action of the magnetic field on the star’s spin.
It’s been suggested that magnetars may just be a higher order of this same RPP effect. Victoria Kaspi has suggested it may be time to consider a ‘grand unified theory’ of neutron stars where all the various species might be explained by their initial conditions, particularly their initial magnetic field strength, as well as their age.
It’s likely that the progenitor star of a magnetar was a particularly big star which left behind a particularly big stellar remnant. Thus, these rarer ‘big’ neutron stars might all begin their lives as a magnetar, radiating huge energies as its powerful magnetic field puts the brakes on its spin. But this dynamic activity means these big stars lose energy quickly, perhaps taking on the appearance of a very x ray luminous, though otherwise unremarkable, RPP later in their life.
Other neutron stars might begin life in less dramatic fashion, as the much more common and just averagely luminous RPPs, which spin down at a more leisurely rate – never achieving the extraordinary luminosities that magnetars are capable of, but managing to remain luminous for longer time periods.
The relatively quiet Central Compact Objects, which don’t seem to even pulse in radio anymore, could represent the end stage in the neutron star life cycle, beyond which the stars hit the dead line, where a highly degraded magnetic field is no longer able to apply the brakes to the stars’ spin. This removes the main cause of their characteristic luminosity and pulsar behaviour – so they just fade quietly away.
For now, this grand unification scheme remains a compelling idea – perhaps awaiting another ten years of Chandra observations to confirm or modify it further.