Gravitational Waves Reveal Surprising Secrets About Neutron Stars

The confirmation of gravitational waves back in 2017 continues to unlock whole new worlds of physics but also continues to elicit further questions.  The detection of each gravitational wave brings a new challenge – how to find out what caused the event.  Sometimes that is harder than it sounds.  Now a team led by Alejandro Vigna-Gomez of the University of Copenhagen thinks they found a model of star death that helps to explain some previously inexplicable findings – and points to a galaxy with many more massive neutron stars than previously thought.

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Astronomers Think They’ve Found the Neutron Star Remnant Left Behind from Supernova 1987A

It was the brightest supernova in nearly 400 years when it lit the skies of the southern hemisphere in February 1987. Supernova 1987A – the explosion of a blue supergiant star in the nearby mini-galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud – amazed the astronomical community. It offered them an unprecedented opportunity to observe an exploding star in real-time with modern instruments and telescopes. But something was missing. After the supernova faded, astronomers expected to find a neutron star (a hyper-dense, collapsed stellar core, made largely of neutrons) left-over at the heart of the explosion. They saw nothing.

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Astronomers Measure a 1-billion Tesla Magnetic Field on the Surface of a Neutron Star

We recently observed the strongest magnetic field ever recorded in the Universe. The record-breaking field was discovered at the surface of a neutron star called GRO J1008-57 with a magnetic field strength of approximately 1 BILLION Tesla. For comparison, the Earth’s magnetic field clocks in at about 1/20,000 of a Tesla – tens of trillions of times weaker than you’d experience on this neutron star…and that is a good thing for your general health and wellbeing.

Neutron stars are the “dead cores” of once massive stars which have ended their lives as supernova. These stars exhausted their supply of hydrogen fuel in their core and a power balance between the internal energy of the star surging outward, and the star’s own massive gravity crushing inward, is cataclysmically unbalanced – gravity wins. The star collapses in on itself. The outer layers fall onto the core crushing it into the densest object we know of in the Universe – a neutron star. Even atoms are crushed. Negatively charged electrons are forced into the atomic nuclei meeting their positive proton counterparts creating more neutrons. When the core can be crushed no further, the outer remaining material of the star rebounds back into space in a massive explosion – a supernova. The resulting neutron star, made of the crushed stellar core, is so dense that a single sugar-cube-sized sampling would weigh billions of tons – as much as a mountain (though if you’re “worthy” you MIGHT able to lift it since Thor’s Hammer is made of the stuff). Neutron stars are typically about 20km in diameter and can still be a million degrees Kelvin at the surface.

But if they’re “dead,” how can neutron stars be some of the most magnetic and powerful objects in the Universe?

Composite image of the maelstrom at the heart of the Crab Nebula powered by a neutron star – Chandra X-Ray Observatory
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Astronomers Think They’ve Found the Neutron Star Remnant From Supernova 1987a

In 1987, astronomers witnessed a spectacular event when they spotted a titanic supernova 168,000 light-years away in the Hydra constellation. Designated 1987A (since it was the first supernova detected that year), the explosion was one of the brightest supernova seen from Earth in more than 400 years. The last time was Kepler’s Supernova, which was visible to Earth-bound observers back in 1604 (hence the designation SN 1604).

Since then, astronomers have tried in vain to find the company object they believed to be at the heart of the nebula that resulted from the explosion. Thanks to recent observations and a follow-up study by two international teams of astronomers, new evidence has been provided that support the theory that there is a neutron star at the heart of SN 1604 – which would make it the youngest neutron star known to date.

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Astronomers Map the Surface of a Pulsar

When stars exhaust their supply of fuel, they collapse under their own weight and explode, blowing off their outer layers in an event known as a “supernova”. In some cases, these events leave behind neutron stars, the smallest and densest of stellar objects (with the exception of certain theoretical stars) that sometimes spin rapidly. Pulsars, a class of neutron star, can spin up to several hundred times per second.

One such object, designated J0030+0451 (J0030), is located about 1,100 light-years from Earth in the Pisces constellation. Recently, scientists using NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) were able to measure the pulsar’s size and mass. In the process, they also managed to locate the various “hot spots” on its surface, effectively creating the first map of a neutron star.

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The Pressure Inside Every Proton is 10x That Inside Neutron Stars

Neutron stars are famous for combining a very high-density with a very small radius. As the remnants of massive stars that have undergone gravitational collapse, the interior of a neutron star is compressed to the point where they have similar pressure conditions to atomic nuclei. Basically, they become so dense that they experience the same amount of internal pressure as the equivalent of 2.6 to 4.1 quadrillion Suns!

In spite of that, neutron stars have nothing on protons, according to a recent study by scientists at the Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. After conducting the first measurement of the mechanical properties of subatomic particles, the scientific team determined that near the center of a proton, the pressure is about 10 times greater than the pressure in the heart of a neutron star.

The study which describes the team’s findings, titled “The pressure distribution inside the proton“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. The study was led by Volker Burkert, a nuclear physicist at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (TJNAF), and co-authored by Latifa Elouadrhiri and Francois-Xavier Girod – also from the TJNAF.

Cross-section of a neutron star. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Robert Schulze

Basically , they found that the pressure conditions at the center of a proton were 100 decillion pascals – about 10 times the pressure at the heart of a neutron star. However, they also found that pressure inside the particle is not uniform, and drops off as the distance from the center increases. As Volker Burkert, the Jefferson Lab Hall B Leader, explained:

“We found an extremely high outward-directed pressure from the center of the proton, and a much lower and more extended inward-directed pressure near the proton’s periphery… Our results also shed light on the distribution of the strong force inside the proton. We are providing a way of visualizing the magnitude and distribution of the strong force inside the proton. This opens up an entirely new direction in nuclear and particle physics that can be explored in the future.”

Protons are composed of three quarks that are bound together by the strong nuclear force, one of the four fundamental forces that government the Universe – the other being electromagnetism, gravity and weak nuclear forces. Whereas electromagnetism and gravity produce the effects that govern matter on the larger scales, weak and strong nuclear forces govern matter at the subatomic level.

Previously, scientists thought that it was impossible to obtain detailed information about subatomic particles. However, the researchers were able to obtain results by pairing two theoretical frameworks with existing data, which consisted of modelling systems that rely on electromagnetism and gravity. The first model concerns generalized parton distributions (GDP) while the second involve gravitational form factors.

Quarks inside a proton experience a force an order of magnitude greater than matter inside a neutron star. Credit: DOE’s Jefferson Lab

Patron modelling refers to modeling subatomic entities (like quarks) inside protons and neutrons, which allows scientist to create 3D images of a proton’s or neutron’s structure (as probed by the electromagnetic force). The second model describes the scattering of subatomic particles by classical gravitational fields, which describes the mechanical structure of protons when probed via the gravitational force.

As noted, scientists previously thought that this was impossible due to the extreme weakness of the gravitational interaction. However, recent theoretical work has indicated that it could be possible to determine the mechanical structure of a proton using electromagnetic probes as a substitute for gravitational probes. According to Latifa Elouadrhiri – a Jefferson Lab staff scientist and co-author on the paper – that is what their team set out to prove.

“This is the beauty of it. You have this map that you think you will never get,” she said. “But here we are, filling it in with this electromagnetic probe.”

For the sake of their study, the team used the DOE’s Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility at the TJNAF to create a beam of electrons. These were then directed into the nuclei of atoms where they interacted electromagnetically with the quarks inside protons via a process called deeply virtual Compton scattering (DVCS). In this process, an electron exchanges a virtual photon with a quark, transferring energy to the quark and proton.

The bare masses of all 6 flavors of quarks, proton and electron, shown in proportional volume. Credit: Wikipedia/Incnis Mrsi

Shortly thereafter, the proton releases this energy by emitting another photon while remaining intact. Through this process, the team was able to produced detailed information of the mechanics going on in inside the protons they probed. As Francois-Xavier Girod, a Jefferson Lab staff scientist and co-author on the paper, explained the process:

“There’s a photon coming in and a photon coming out. And the pair of photons both are spin-1. That gives us the same information as exchanging one graviton particle with spin-2. So now, one can basically do the same thing that we have done in electromagnetic processes — but relative to the gravitational form factors, which represent the mechanical structure of the proton.”

The next step, according to the research team, will be to apply the technique to even more precise data that will soon be released. This will reduce uncertainties in the current analysis and allow the team to reveal other mechanical properties inside protons – like the internal shear forces and the proton’s mechanical radius. These results, and those the team hope to reveal in the future, are sure to be of interest to other physicists.

“We are providing a way of visualizing the magnitude and distribution of the strong force inside the proton,” said Burkert. “This opens up an entirely new direction in nuclear and particle physics that can be explored in the future.”

Perhaps, just perhaps, it will bring us closer to understanding how the four fundamental forces of the Universe interact. While scientists understand how electromagnetism and weak and strong nuclear forces interact with each other (as described by Quantum Mechanics), they are still unsure how these interact with gravity (as described by General Relativity).

If and when the four forces can be unified in a Theory of Everything (ToE), one of the last and greatest hurdles to a complete understanding of the Universe will finally be removed.

Further Reading: Jefferson Lab, Cosmos Magazine, Nature