We don’t really understand neutron stars. Oh, we know that they are – they’re the leftover remnants of some of the most massive stars in the universe – but revealing their inner workings is a little bit tricky, because the physics keeping them alive is only poorly understood.
But every once in a while two neutron stars smash together, and when they do they tend to blow up, spewing their quantum guts all over space. Depending on the internal structure and composition of the neutron stars, the “ejecta” (the polite scientific term for astronomical projectile vomit) will look different to us Earth-bound observers, giving us a gross but potentially powerful way to understand these exotic creatures.
On June 17th 2018, the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) survey’s twin telescopes spotted something extraordinarily bright in the sky. The source was 200 million light years away in the constellation Hercules. The object was given the name AT2018cow or “The Cow.” The Cow flared up quickly, and then just as quickly it was gone.
For almost a century, astronomers have been studying supernovae with great interest. These miraculous events are what take place when a star enters the final phase of its lifespan and collapses, or is stripped by a companion star of its outer layers to the point where it undergoes core collapse. In both cases, this event usually leads to a massive release of material a few times the mass of our Sun.
However, an international team of scientists recently witnessed a supernova that was a surprisingly faint and brief. Their observations indicate that the supernova was caused by an unseen companion, likely a neutron star that stripped its companion of material, causing it to collapse and go supernova. This is therefore the first time that scientists have witnessed the birth of a compact neutron star binary system.
Ever since they were first discovered in the 1930s, scientists have puzzled over the mystery that is neutron stars. These stars, which are the result of a supernova explosion, are the smallest and densest stars in the Universe. While they typically have a radius of about 10 km (6.2 mi) – about 1.437 x 10-5 times that of the Sun – they also average between 1.4 and 2.16 Solar masses.
At this density, which is the same as that of atomic nuclei, a single teaspoon of neutron star material would weigh about as much as 90 million metric tons (100 million US tons). And now, a team of scientists has conducted a study that indicates that the strongest known material in the Universe – what they refer to as “nuclear pasta” – exists deep inside the crust of neutron stars.
In August of 2017, astronomers made another major breakthrough when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves that were believed to be caused by the merger of two neutron stars. Since that time, scientists at multiple facilities around the world have conducted follow-up observations to determine the aftermath this merger, as even to test various cosmological theories.
For instance, in the past, some scientists have suggested that the inconsistencies between Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and the nature of the Universe over large-scales could be explained by the presence of extra dimensions. However, according to a new study by a team of American astrophysicists, last year’s kilonova event effectively rules out this hypothesis.
This source, known as GW170817/GRB, has been the target of many follow-up surveys since it was believed that the merge could have led to the formation of a black hole. According to a new study by a team that analyzed data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory since the event, scientists can now say with greater confidence that the merger created a new black hole in our galaxy.
The study, titled “GW170817 Most Likely Made a Black Hole“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The study was led by David Pooley, an assistant professor in physics and astronomy at Trinity University, San Antonio, and included members from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, Berkeley, and Nazarbayev University’s Energetic Cosmos Laboratory in Kazakhstan.
For the sake of their study, the team analyzed X-ray data from Chandra taken in the days, weeks, and months after the detection of gravitational waves by LIGO and gamma rays by NASA’s Fermi mission. While nearly every telescope in the world had observed the source, X-ray data was critical to understanding what happened after the two neutron stars collided.
While a Chandra observation two to three days after the event failed to detect an X-ray source, subsequent observations taken 9, 15, and 16 days after the event resulted in detections. The source disappeared for a time as GW170817 passed behind the Sun, but additional observations were made about 110 and 160 days after the event, both of which showed significant brightening.
While the LIGO data provided astronomers with a good estimate of the resulting object’s mass after the neutron stars merged (2.7 Solar Masses), this was not enough to determine what it had become. Essentially, this amount of mass meant that it was either the most massive neutron star ever found or the lowest-mass black hole ever found (the previous record holders being four or five Solar Masses). As Dave Pooley explained in a NASA/Chandra press release:
“While neutron stars and black holes are mysterious, we have studied many of them throughout the Universe using telescopes like Chandra. That means we have both data and theories on how we expect such objects to behave in X-rays.”
If the neutron stars merged to form a heavier neutron star, then astronomers would expect it to spin rapidly and generate and very strong magnetic field. This would have also created an expanded bubble of high-energy particles that would result in bright X-ray emissions. However, the Chandra data revealed X-ray emissions that were several hundred times lower than expected from a massive, rapidly-spinning neutron star.
By comparing the Chandra observations with those by the NSF’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), Pooley and his team were also able to deduce that the X-ray emission were due entirely to the shock wave caused by the merger smashing into surrounding gas. In short, there was no sign of X-rays resulting from a neutron star.
This strongly implies that the resulting object was in fact a black hole. If confirmed, these results would indicate that the formation process of a blackhole can sometimes be complicated. Essentially, GW170817 would have been the result of two stars undergoing a supernova explosion that left behind two neutron stars in a sufficiently tight orbit that they eventually came together. As Pawan Kumar explained:
“We may have answered one of the most basic questions about this dazzling event: what did it make? Astronomers have long suspected that neutron star mergers would form a black hole and produce bursts of radiation, but we lacked a strong case for it until now.”
Looking ahead, the claims put forward by Pooley and his colleagues could be tested by future X-ray and radio observations. Next-generation instruments – like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) currently under construction in South Africa and Australia, and the ESA’s Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics (Athena+) – would be especially helpful in this regard.
If the remnant turns out to be a massive neutron star with a strong magnetic field after all, then the source should get much brighter in the X-ray and radio wavelengths in the coming years as the high-energy bubble catches up with the decelerating shock wave. As the shock wave weakens, astronomers expect that it will continue to become fainter than it was when recently observed.
Regardless, future observations of GW170817 are bound to provide a wealth of information, according to J. Craig Wheeler, a co-author on the study also from the University of Texas. “GW170817 is the astronomical event that keeps on giving,” he said. “We are learning so much about the astrophysics of the densest known objects from this one event.”
If these follow-up observations find that a heavy neutron star is what resulted from the merger, this discovery would challenge theories about the structure of neutron stars and how massive they can get. On the other hand, if they find that it formed a tiny black hole, then it will challenge astronomers notions about the lower mass limits of black holes. For astrophysicists, it’s basically a win-win scenario.
As co-author Bruce Grossan of the University of California at Berkeley added:
“At the beginning of my career, astronomers could only observe neutron stars and black holes in our own galaxy, and now we are observing these exotic stars across the cosmos. What an exciting time to be alive, to see instruments like LIGO and Chandra showing us so many thrilling things nature has to offer.”
Indeed, looking farther out into the cosmos and deeper back in time has revealed much about the Universe that was previously unknown. And with improved instruments being developed for the sole purpose of studying astronomical phenomena in greater detail and at even greater distances, there seems to be no limit to what we might learn. And be sure to check out this video of the GW170817 merger, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:
In August of 2017, a major breakthrough occurred when scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves that were believed to be caused by the collision of two neutron stars. This source, known as GW170817/GRB, was the first gravitational wave (GW) event that was not caused by the merger of two black holes, and was even believed to have led to the formation of one.
As such, scientists from all over the world have been studying this event ever since to learn what they can from it. For example, according to a new study led by the McGill Space Institute and Department of Physics, GW170817/GRB has shown some rather strange behavior since the two neutron stars colliding last August. Instead of dimming, as was expected, it has been gradually growing brighter.
For the sake of their study, the team relied on data obtained by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which showed that the remnant has been brightening in the X-ray and radio wavelengths in the months since the collision took place. As Daryl Haggard, an astrophysicist with McGill University whose research group led the new study, said in a recent Chandra press release:
“Usually when we see a short gamma-ray burst, the jet emission generated gets bright for a short time as it smashes into the surrounding medium – then fades as the system stops injecting energy into the outflow. This one is different; it’s definitely not a simple, plain-Jane narrow jet.”
What’s more, these X-ray observations are consistent with radiowave data reported last month by another team of scientists, who also indicated that it was continuing to brighten during the three months since the collision. During this same period, X-ray and optical observatories were unable to monitor GW170817/GRB because it was too close to the Sun at the time.
However, once this period ended, Chandra was able to gather data again, which was consistent with these other observations. As John Ruan explained:
“When the source emerged from that blind spot in the sky in early December, our Chandra team jumped at the chance to see what was going on. Sure enough, the afterglow turned out to be brighter in the X-ray wavelengths, just as it was in the radio.”
This unexpected behavior has led to a serious buzz in the scientific community, with astronomers trying to come up with explanations as to what type of physics could be driving these emissions. One theory is a complex model for neutron star mergers known as “cocoon theory”. In accordance with this theory, the merger of two neutron stars could trigger the release of a jet that shock-heats the surrounding gaseous debris.
This hot “cocoon” around the jet would glow brightly, which would explain the increase in X-ray and radiowave emissions. In the coming months, additional observations are sure to be made for the sake of confirming or denying this explanation. Regardless of whether or not the “cocoon theory” holds up, any and all future studies are sure to reveal a great deal more about this mysterious remnant and its strange behavior.
As Melania Nynka, another McGill postdoctoral researcher and a co-author on the paper indicated, GW170817/GRB presents some truly unique opportunities for astrophysical research. “This neutron-star merger is unlike anything we’ve seen before,” she said. “For astrophysicists, it’s a gift that seems to keep on giving.”
It is no exaggeration to say that the first-ever detection of gravitational waves, which took place in February of 2016, has led to a new era in astronomy. But the detection of two neutron stars colliding was also a revolutionary accomplishment. For the first time, astronomers were able to observe such an event in both light waves and gravitational waves.
In the end, the combination of improved technology, improved methodology, and closer cooperation between institutions and observatories is allowing scientists to study cosmic phenomena that was once merely theoretical. Looking ahead, the possibilities seem almost limitless!
For example, a team from the University of Frankurt am Main recently showed how gravitational waves could be used to determine how massive neutron stars can get before collapsing into black holes. This has remained a mystery since neutron stars were first discovered in the 1960s. And with an upper mass limit now established, scientists will be able to develop a better understanding of how matter behaves under extreme conditions.
For the sake of their study, the team considered recent observations made of the gravitational wave event known as GW170817. This event, which took place on August 17th, 2017, was the sixth gravitational wave to be discovered by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo Observatory. Unlike previous events, this one was unique in that it appeared to be caused by the collision and explosion of two neutron stars.
And whereas other events occurred at distances of about a billion light years, GW170817 took place only 130 million light years from Earth, which allowed for rapid detection and research. In addition, based on modeling that was conducted months after the event (and using data obtained by the Chandra X-ray Observatory) the collision appeared to have left behind a black hole as a remnant.
The team also adopted a “universal relations” approach for their study, which was developed by researchers at Frankfurt University a few years ago. This approach implies that all neutron stars have similar properties which can be expressed in terms of dimensionless quantities. Combined with the GW data, they concluded that the maximum mass of non-rotating neutron stars cannot exceed 2.16 solar masses.
As Professor Rezzolla explained in a University of Frankfurt press release:
“The beauty of theoretical research is that it can make predictions. Theory, however, desperately needs experiments to narrow down some of its uncertainties. It’s therefore quite remarkable that the observation of a single binary neutron star merger that occurred millions of light years away combined with the universal relations discovered through our theoretical work have allowed us to solve a riddle that has seen so much speculation in the past.”
This study is a good example of how theoretical and experimental research can coincide to produce better models ad predictions. A few days after the publication of their study, research groups from the USA and Japan independently confirmed the findings. Just as significantly, these research teams confirmed the studies findings using different approaches and techniques.
In the future, gravitational-wave astronomy is expected to observe many more events. And with improved methods and more accurate models at their disposal, astronomers are likely to learn even more about the most mysterious and powerful forces at work in our Universe.
When astronomers first noted the detection of a Fast Radio Burst (FRB) in 2007 (aka. the Lorimer Burst), they were both astounded and intrigued. This high-energy burst of radio pulses, which lasted only a few milliseconds, appeared to be coming from outside of our galaxy. Since that time, astronomers have found evidence of many FRBs in previously-recorded data, and are still speculating as to what causes them.
Thanks to subsequent discoveries and research, astronomers now know that FRBs are far more common than previously thought. In fact, according to a new study by a team of researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), FRBs may occur once every second within the observable Universe. If true, FRBs could be a powerful tool for researching the origins and evolution of the cosmos.
As noted, FRBs have remained something of a mystery since they were first discovered. Not only do their causes remain unknown, but much about their true nature is still not understood. As Dr. Fialkov told Universe Today via email:
“FRBs (or fast radio bursts) are astrophysical signals of an undetermined nature. The observed bursts are short (or millisecond duration), bright pulses in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum (at GHz frequencies). Only 24 bursts have been observed so far and we still do not know for sure which physical processes trigger them. The most plausible explanation is that they are launched by rotating magnetized neutron stars. However, this theory is to be confirmed.”
For the sake of their study, Fialkov and Loeb relied on observations made by multiple telescopes of the repeating fast radio burst known as FRB 121102. This FRB was first observed in 2012 by researchers using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and has since been confirmed to be coming from a galaxy located 3 billion light years away in the direction of the Auriga constellation.
Since it was discovered, additional bursts have been detected coming from its location, making FRB 121102 the only known example of a repeating FRB. This repetitive nature has also allowed astronomers to conduct more detailed studies of it than any other FRB. As Prof. Loeb told Universe Today via email, these and other reasons made it an ideal target for their study:
“FRB 121102 is the only FRB for which a host galaxy and a distance were identified. It is also the only repeating FRB source from which we detected hundreds of FRBs by now. The radio spectrum of its FRBs is centered on a characteristic frequency and not covering a very broad band. This has important implications for the detectability of such FRBs, because in order to find them the radio observatory needs to be tuned to their frequency.”
Based on what is known about FRB 121102, Fialkov and Loeb conducted a series of calculations that assumed that it’s behavior was representative of all FRBs. They then projected how many FRBs would exist across the entire sky and determined that within the observable Universe, a FRB would likely be taking place once every second. As Dr. Fialkov explained:
“Assuming that FRBs are produced by galaxies of a particular type (e.g., similar to FRB 121102) we can calculate how many FRBs have to be produced by each galaxy to explain the existing observations (i.e., 2000 per sky per day). With this number in mind we can infer the production rate for the entire population of galaxies. This calculation shows that an FRB occurs every second when accounting for all the faint events.”
While the exact nature and origins of FRBs are still unknown – suggestions include rotating neutron stars and even alien intelligence! – Fialkov and Loeb indicate that they could be used to study the structure and evolution of the Universe. If indeed they occur with such regular frequency throughout the cosmos, then more distant sources could act as probes which astronomers would then rely on to plumb the depths of space.
For instance, over vast cosmic distances, there is a significant amount of intervening material that makes it difficult for astronomers to study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. Studies of this intervening material could lead to a new estimates of just how dense space is – i.e. how much of it is composed of ordinary matter, dark matter, and dark energy – and how rapidly it is expanding.
And as Prof. Loeb indicated, FRBs could also be used to explore enduring cosmlogical questions, like how the “Dark Age” of the Universe ended:
“FRBs can be used to measure the column of free electrons towards their source. This can be used to measure the density of ordinary matter between galaxies in the present-day universe. In addition, FRBs at early cosmic times can be used to find out when the ultraviolet light from the first stars broke up the primordial atoms of hydrogen left over from the Big Bang into their constituent electrons and protons.”
The “Dark Age”, which occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, was characterized by a “fog” of hydrogen atoms interacting with photons. As a result of this, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments. At present, scientists are still attempting to resolve how the Universe made the transition between these “Dark Ages” and subsequent epochs when the Universe was filled with light.
This period of “reionization”, which took place 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang, was when the first stars and quasars formed. It is generally believed that UV light from the first stars in the Universe traveled outwards to ionize the hydrogen gas (thus clearing the fog). A recent study also suggested that black holes that existed in the early Universe created the necessary “winds” that allowed this ionizing radiation to escape.
To this end, FRBs could be used to probe into this early period of the Universe and determine what broke down this “fog” and allowed light to escape. Studying very distant FRBs could allow scientists to study where, when and how this process of “reionization” occurred. Looking ahead, Fialkov and Loeb explained how future radio telescopes will be able to discover many FRBs.
“Future radio observatories, like the Square Kilometer Array, will be sensitive enough to detect FRBs from the first generation of galaxies at the edge of the observable universe,” said Prof. Loeb. “Our work provides the first estimate of the number and properties of the first flashes of radio waves that lit up in the infant universe.”
“[W]e find that a next generation telescope (with a much better sensitivity than the existing ones) is expected to see many more FRBs than what is observed today,” said Dr. Fialkov. “This would allow to characterize the population of FRBs and identify their origin. Understanding the nature of FRBs will be a major breakthrough. Once the properties of these sources are known, FRBs can be used as cosmic beacons to explore the Universe. One application is to study the history of reionization (cosmic phase transition when the inter-galactic gas was ionized by stars).”
It is an inspired thought, using natural cosmic phenomena as research tools. In that respect, using FRBs to probe the most distant objects in space (and as far back in time as we can) is kind of like using quasars as navigational beacons. In the end, advancing our knowledge of the Universe allows us to explore more of it.
When a large star undergoes gravitational collapse near the end of its lifespan, a neutron star is often the result. This is what remains after the outer layers of the star have been blown off in a massive explosion (i.e. a supernova) and the core has compressed to extreme density. Afterwards, the star’s rotation rate increases considerably, and where they emit beams of electromagnetic radiation, they become “pulsars”.
And now, 50 years after they were first discovered by British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell, the first mission devoted to the study of these objects is about to be mounted. It is known as the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), a two-part experiment that will be deployed to the International Space Station this summer. If all goes well, this platform will shed light on one of the greatest astronomical mysteries, and test out new technologies.
Astronomers have been studying neutron stars for almost a century, which have yielded some very precise measurements of their masses and radii. However, what actually transpires in the interior of a neutron star remains an enduring mystery. While numerous models have been advanced that describe the physics governing their interiors, it is still unclear how matter would behave under these types of conditions.
Not surprising, since neutron stars typically hold about 1.4 times the mass of our Sun (or 460,000 times the mass of the Earth) within a volume of space that is the size of a city. This kind of situation, where a considerable amount of matter is packed into a very small volume – resulting in crushing gravity and an incredible matter density – is not seen anywhere else in the Universe.
As Keith Gendreau, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained in a recent NASA press statement:
“The nature of matter under these conditions is a decades-old unsolved problem. Theory has advanced a host of models to describe the physics governing the interiors of neutron stars. With NICER, we can finally test these theories with precise observations.”
NICE was developed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center with the assistance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Naval Research Laboratory, and universities across the U.S. and Canada. It consists of a refrigerator-sized apparatus that contains 56 X-ray telescopes and silicon detectors. Though it was originally intended to be deployed late in 2016, a launch window did not become available until this year.
Once installed as an external payload aboard the ISS, it will gather data on neutron stars (mainly pulsars) over an 18-month period by observing neutron stars in the X-ray band. Even though these stars emit radiation across the spectrum, X-ray observations are believed to be the most promising when it comes to revealing things about their structure and various high-energy phenomena associated with them.
These include starquakes, thermonuclear explosions, and the most powerful magnetic fields known in the Universe. To do this, NICER will collect X-rays generated from these stars’ magnetic fields and magnetic poles. This is key, since it is at the poles that the strength of a neutron star’s magnetic fields causes particles to be trapped and rain down on the surface, which produces X-rays.
In pulsars, it is these intense magnetic fields which cause energetic particles to become focused beams of radiation. These beams are what give pulsars their name, as they appear like flashes thanks to the star’s rotation (giving them their “lighthouse”-like appearance). As physicists have observed, these pulsations are predictable, and can therefore be used the same way atomic-clocks and Global Positioning System are here on Earth.
While the primary goal of NICER is science, it also offers the possibility of testing new forms of technology. For instance, the instrument will be used to conduct the first-ever demonstration of autonomous X-ray pulsar-based navigation. As part of the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT), the team will use NICER’s telescopes to detect the X-ray beams generated by pulsars to estimate the arrival times of their pulses.
The team will then use specifically-designed algorithms to create an on-board navigation solution. In the future, interstellar spaceships could theoretically rely on this to calculate their location autonomously. This wold allow them to find their way in space without having to rely on NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), which is considered to be the most sensitive telecommunications system in the world.
Beyond navigation, the NICER project also hopes to conduct the first-ever test of the viability of X-ray based-communications (XCOM). By using X-rays to send and receive data (in the same way we currently use radio waves), spacecraft could transmit data at the rate of gigabits per second over interplanetary distances. Such a capacity could revolutionize the way we communicate with crewed missions, rover and orbiters.
Central to both demonstrations is the Modulated X-ray Source (MXS), which the NICER team developed to calibrate the payload’s detectors and test the navigation algorithms. Generating X-rays with rapidly varying intensity (by switching on and off many times per second), this device will simulate a neutron star’s pulsations. As Gendreau explained:
“This is a very interesting experiment that we’re doing on the space station. We’ve had a lot of great support from the science and space technology folks at NASA Headquarters. They have helped us advance the technologies that make NICER possible as well as those that NICER will demonstrate. The mission is blazing trails on several different levels.”
It is hoped that the MXS will be ready to ship to the station sometime next year; at which time, navigation and communication demonstrations could begin. And it is expected that before July 25th, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Bell’s discovery, the team will have collected enough data to present findings at scientific conferences scheduled for later this year.
If successful, NICER could revolutionize our understanding of how neutron stars (and how matter behaves in a super-dense state) behaves. This knowledge could also help us to understand other cosmological mysteries such as black holes. On top of that, X-ray communications and navigation could revolutionize space exploration and travel as we know it. In addition to providing greater returns from robotic missions located closer to home, it could also enable more lucrative missions to locations in the outer Solar System and even beyond.