Newly Discovered Fast Radio Bursts May be Colliding Neutron Stars

The Universe is sizzling with undiscovered phenomena. Only last month astronomers heard four unexpected bumps in the night. These Fast Radio Bursts released torrents of energy, each occurred only once, and lasted a few thousandths of a second. Their origin has since mystified astronomers.

Dismissing my first guess, which includes a feverish Jodie Foster verifying the existence of extraterrestrial life, astronomers have found a more likely answer. Two neutron stars collide, but before doing so produce a quick burst of radio emission, which we later observe as a Fast Radio Burst.

Our first hint? These Fast Radio Bursts are extra-galactic in origin.  The exact distance is quantifiable from a “dispersion measure – the frequency dependent time delay of the radio signal,” Dr. Tomonori Totani, lead author on the paper, told Universe Today. “This is proportional to the number of electrons along the line of sight.”

For all bursts, the short-wavelength component arrived at the telescope a fraction of a second before the longer wavelengths.  This is due to an effect known as interstellar dispersion: through any medium, longer-wavelength light moves slightly slower than short-wavelength light.

Light from extra-galactic objects will have to travel through intergalactic space, which is teeming with electrons in clouds of cold plasma. The farther the light travels, the more electrons it will have to travel through, and the greater the time delay between arriving wavelength components. By the time light reaches the Earth, it has been dispersed, and the amount of dispersion is directly correlated with distance.

These Fast Radio Bursts are likely to have originated anywhere from 5 to 10 billion light years away.

While the exact source of these Fast Radio Bursts has been highly debated, a recent hypothesis concludes that they are the result of merging neutron stars in the distant Universe.

In the final milliseconds before merging, the rotation periods of the two neutron stars synchronize – they become tidally locked to one another as the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth. At this point their magnetic fields also synchronize. Energetic charged particles spiral along the strong magnetic field lines and emit a beam of radio synchrotron emission.

Known neutron star magnetic field strengths are consistent with the radio flux observed in these Fast Radio Bursts.  The emission then ceases in a few milliseconds when the two neutron stars have collided, which explains the short duration of these Fast Radio Bursts.

Not only does this mechanism describe both the high energy and the time duration of these bursts, but they’re inferred occurrence rate as well. It’s likely that 100,000 Fast Radio Bursts occur each day. This matches the likely neutron star merger rate.

Merging neutrons stars will also create gravitational waves – ripples in the curvature of spacetime that propagate away from the event. Dr. Totani emphasized that the next step will be to perform a correlated search of gravitational waves and Fast Radio Bursts. Such a fast rate estimate is certainly good news for scientists hoping to detect gravitational waves in the nearby future.

The Universe is bursting with energy – literally – every 10 seconds, and until recently we simply had no idea. This recently discovered phenomenon is likely to be the center of a new active area of research. And I have no doubt that it will lead to exciting discoveries that just may break trends and burst into new territories.

The discovery paper may be found here, while the paper analyzing neutron stars as a likely source may be found here.

Earth’s Gold Came From Colliding Stars

Are you wearing a gold ring? Or perhaps gold-plated earrings? Maybe you have some gold fillings in your teeth… for that matter, the human body itself naturally contains gold — 0.000014%, to be exact! But regardless of where and how much of the precious yellow metal you may have with you at this very moment, it all ultimately came from the same place.

And no, I don’t mean Fort Knox, the jewelry store, or even under the ground — all the gold on Earth likely originated from violent collisions between neutron stars, billions of years in the past.

Recent research by scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts has revealed that considerable amounts of gold — along with other heavy elements — are produced during impacts between neutron stars, the super-dense remains of stars originally 1.4 to 9 times the mass of our Sun.

The team’s investigation of a short-duration gamma-ray outburst that occurred in June (GRB 130603B) showed a surprising residual near-infrared glow, possibly from a cloud of material created during the stellar merger. This cloud is thought to contain a considerable amount of freshly-minted heavy elements, including gold.

“We estimate that the amount of gold produced and ejected during the merger of the two neutron stars may be as large as 10 moon masses – quite a lot of bling!” said lead author Edo Berger.

"With this remnant of a dead neutron star, I thee wed." (
“With this remnant of a dead neutron star, I thee wed.” (

The mass of the Moon is 7.347 x 1022 kg… about 1.2% the mass of Earth. The collision between these neutron stars then, 3.9 billion light-years away, produced 10 times that much gold based on the team’s estimates.

Quite a lot of bling, indeed.

Gamma-ray bursts come in two varieties – long and short – depending on the duration of the gamma-ray flash. GRB 130603B, detected by NASA’s Swift satellite on June 3rd, lasted for less than two-tenths of a second.

Although the gamma rays disappeared quickly, GRB 130603B also displayed a slowly fading glow dominated by infrared light. Its brightness and behavior didn’t match the typical “afterglow” created when a high-speed jet of particles slams into the surrounding environment.

Instead, the glow behaved like it came from exotic radioactive elements. The neutron-rich material ejected by colliding neutron stars can generate such elements, which then undergo radioactive decay, emitting a glow that’s dominated by infrared light – exactly what the team observed.

“We’ve been looking for a ‘smoking gun’ to link a short gamma-ray burst with a neutron star collision,” said Wen-fai Fong, a graduate student at CfA and a co-author of the paper. “The radioactive glow from GRB 130603B may be that smoking gun.”

The team calculates that about one-hundredth of a solar mass of material was ejected by the gamma-ray burst, some of which was gold. By combining the estimated gold produced by a single short GRB with the number of such explosions that have likely occurred over the entire age of the Universe, all the gold in the cosmos – and thus on Earth – may very well have come from such gamma-ray bursts.

Watch an animation of two colliding neutron stars along with the resulting GRB below (Credit: Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital, Inc.):

How much gold is there on Earth, by the way? Since most of it lies deep inside Earth’s core and is thus unreachable, the total amount ever retrieved by humans over the course of history is surprisingly small: about 172,000 tonnes, or enough to make a cube 20.7 meters (68 feet) per side (based on the Thomson Reuters GFMS annual survey.) Some other estimates put this amount at slightly more or less, but the bottom line is that there really isn’t all that much gold available in Earth’s crust… which is partly what makes it (and other “precious” metals) so valuable.

And perhaps the knowledge that every single ounce of that gold was created by dead stars smashing together billions of years ago in some distant part of the Universe would add to that value.

“To paraphrase Carl Sagan, we are all star stuff, and our jewelry is colliding-star stuff,” Berger said.

The team’s findings were presented today in a press conference at the CfA in Cambridge. (See the paper here.)

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Neutron Stars: A Cataclysmic Conception

It’s one of the most intense and violent of all events in space – a supernova. Now a team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics have been taking a very specialized look at the formation of neutron stars at the center of collapsing stars. Through the use of sophisticated computer simulations, they have been able to create three-dimensional models which show the physical effects – intense and violent motions which occur when stellar matter is drawn inward. It’s a bold, new look into the dynamics which happen when a star explodes.

As we know, stars which have eight to ten times the mass of the Sun are destined to end their lives in a massive explosion, the gases blown into space with incredible force. These cataclysmic events are among the brightest and most powerful events in the Universe and can outshine a galaxy when they occur. It is this very process which creates elements critical to life as we know it – and the beginnings of neutron stars.

Neutron stars are an enigma unto themselves. These highly compact stellar remnants contain as much as 1.5 times the mass of the Sun, yet are compressed to the size of a city. It is not a slow squeeze. This compression happens when the stellar core implodes from the intense gravity of its own mass… and it takes only a fraction of a second. Can anything stop it? Yes. It has a limit. Collapse ceases when the density of the atomic nuclei is exceeded. That’s comparable to around 300 million tons compressed into something the size of a sugar cube.

Studying neutron stars opens up a whole new dimension of questions which scientists are keen to answer. They want to know what causes stellar disruption and how can the implosion of the stellar core revert to an explosion. At present, they theorize that neutrinos may be a critical factor. These tiny elemental particles are created and expelled in monumental numbers during the supernova process and may very well act as heating elements which ignite the explosion. According to the research team, neutrinos could impart energy into the stellar gas, causing it to build up pressure. From there, a shock wave is created and as it speeds up, it could disrupt the star and cause a supernova.

As plausible as it might sound, astronomers aren’t sure if this theory could work or not. Because the processes of a supernova cannot be recreated under laboratory conditions and we’re not able to directly see into the interior of a supernovae, we’ll just have to rely on computer simulations. Right now, researchers are able to recreate a supernova event with complex mathematical equations which replicate the motions of stellar gas and the physical properties which happen at the critical moment of core collapse. These types of computations require the use of some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, but it has also been possible to use more simplified models to get the same results. “If, for example, the crucial effects of neutrinos were included in some detailed treatment, the computer simulations could only be performed in two dimensions, which means that the star in the models was assumed to have an artificial rotational symmetry around an axis.” says the research team.

With the support of the Rechenzentrum Garching (RZG), scientists were able to create in a singularly efficient and fast computer program. They were also given access to most powerful supercomputers, and a computer time award of nearly 150 million processor hours, which is the greatest contingent so far granted by the “Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE)” initiative of the European Union, the team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA) in Garching could now for the first time simulate the processes in collapsing stars in three dimensions and with a sophisticated description of all relevant physics.

“For this purpose we used nearly 16,000 processor cores in parallel mode, but still a single model run took about 4.5 months of continuous computing”, says PhD student Florian Hanke, who performed the simulations. Only two computing centers in Europe were able to provide sufficiently powerful machines for such long periods of time, namely CURIE at Très Grand Centre de calcul (TGCC) du CEA near Paris and SuperMUC at the Leibniz-Rechenzentrum (LRZ) in Munich/Garching.

Turbulent evolution of a neutron star for six moments (0.154, 0.223, 0.240, 0.245, 0.249 and 0.278 seconds) after the beginning of the neutron star formation in a threedimensional computer simulation. The mushroom-like bubbles are characteristic of "boiling" neutrino-heated gas, whereas simultaneously the "SASI" instability causes wild sloshing and rotational motions of the whole neutrino-heated layer (red) and of the enveloping supernova shock (blue) . (Images by Elena Erastova and Markus Rampp, RZG)
Turbulent evolution of a neutron star for six moments (0.154, 0.223, 0.240, 0.245, 0.249 and 0.278 seconds) after the beginning of the neutron star formation in a threedimensional computer simulation. The mushroom-like bubbles are characteristic of “boiling” neutrino-heated gas, whereas simultaneously the “SASI” instability causes wild sloshing and rotational motions of the whole neutrino-heated layer (red) and of the enveloping supernova shock (blue) . (Images by Elena Erastova and Markus Rampp, RZG)
Given several thousand billion bytes of simulation data, it took some time before researchers could fully understand the implications of their model runs. However, what they saw both elated and surprised them. The stellar gas performed in a manner very much like ordinary convection, with the neutrinos driving the heating process. And that’s not all… They also found strong sloshing motions which transiently change to rotational motions. This behavior has been observed before and named Standing Accretion Shock Instability. According to the news release, “This term expresses the fact that the initial sphericity of the supernova shock wave is spontaneously broken, because the shock develops large-amplitude, pulsating asymmetries by the oscillatory growth of initially small, random seed perturbations. So far, however, this had been found only in simplified and incomplete model simulations.”

“My colleague Thierry Foglizzo at the Service d’ Astrophysique des CEA-Saclay near Paris has obtained a detailed understanding of the growth conditions of this instability”, explains Hans-Thomas Janka, the head of the research team. “He has constructed an experiment, in which a hydraulic jump in a circular water flow exhibits pulsational asymmetries in close analogy to the shock front in the collapsing matter of the supernova core.” Known as Shallow Water Analogue of Shock Instability, the dynamic process can be demonstrated in less technicalized manners by eliminating the important effects of neutrino heating – a reason which causes many astrophysicists to doubt that collapsing stars might go through this type of instability. However, the new computer models are able to demonstrate the Standing Accretion Shock Instability is a critical factor.

“It does not only govern the mass motions in the supernova core but it also imposes characteristic signatures on the neutrino and gravitational-wave emission, which will be measurable for a future Galactic supernova. Moreover, it may lead to strong asymmetries of the stellar explosion, in course of which the newly formed neutron star will receive a large kick and spin”, describes team member Bernhard Müller the most significant consequences of such dynamical processes in the supernova core.

Are we finished with supernova research? Do we understand everything there is to know about neutron stars? Not hardly. At the present time, the scientist are ready to further their investigations into the measurable effects connected to SASI and refine their predictions of associated signals. In the future they will further their understanding by performing more and longer simulations to reveal how instability and neutrino heating react together. Perhaps one day they’ll be able to show this relationship to be the trigger which ignites a supernova explosion and conceives a neutron star.

Original Story Source: Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics News Release.

Recycling Pulsars – The Millisecond Matters…


It’s a millisecond pulsar… a rapidly rotating neutron star and it’s about to reach the end of its mass gathering phase. For ages the vampire of this binary system has been sucking matter from a donor star. It has been busy, spinning at incredibly high rotational speeds of about 1 to 10 milliseconds and shooting off X-rays. Now, something is about to happen. It is going to lose a whole lot of energy and age very quickly.

Astrophysicist Thomas Tauris of Argelander-Institut für Astronomie and Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie has published a paper in the February 3 issue of Science where he has shown through numerical equations the root of stellar evolution and accretion torques. In this model, millisecond pulsars are shown to dissipate approximately half of their rotational energy during the last phase of the mass-transfer process and just before it turns into a radio source. Dr. Tauris’ findings are consistent with current observations and his conclusions also explain why a radio millisecond pulsar appears age-advanced over their companion stars. This may be the answer as to why sub-millisecond pulsars don’t exist at all!

“Millisecond pulsars are old neutron stars that have been spun up to high rotational frequencies via accretion of mass from a binary companion star.” says Dr. Tauris. “An important issue for understanding the physics of the early spin evolution of millisecond pulsars is the impact of the expanding magnetosphere during the terminal stages of the mass-transfer process.”

By drawing mass and angular momentum from a host star in a binary system, a millisecond pulsar lives its life as a highly magnetized, old neutron star with an extreme rotational frequency. While we might assume they are common, there are only about 200 of these pulsar types known to exist in galactic disk and globular clusters. The first of these millisecond pulsars was discovered in 1982. What counts are those that have spin rates between 1.4 to 10 milliseconds, but the mystery lay in why they have such rapid spin rates, their strong magnetic fields and their strangely appearing ages. For example, when do they switch off? What happens to the spin rate when the donor star quits donating?

“We have now, for the first time, combined detailed numerical stellar evolution models with calculations of the braking torque acting on the spinning pulsar”, says Thomas Tauris, the author of the present study. “The result is that the millisecond pulsars lose about half of their rotational energy in the so-called Roche-lobe decoupling phase. This phase is describing the termination of the mass transfer in the binary system. Hence, radio-emitting millisecond pulsars should spin slightly slower than their progenitors, X-ray emitting millisecond pulsars which are still accreting material from their donor star. This is exactly what the observational data seem to suggest. Furthermore, these new findings can help explain why some millisecond pulsars appear to have characteristic ages exceeding the age of the Universe and perhaps why no sub-millisecond radio pulsars exist.”

Thanks to this new study we’re now able to see how a spinning pulsar could possibly brake out of an equilibrium spin. At this age, the mass-transfer rate slows down and affects the magnetospheric radius of the pulsar. This in turn expands and forces the incoming matter to act as a propeller. The action then causes the pulsar to slow down its rotation and – in turn – slow its spin rate.

“Actually, without a solution to the “turn-off” problem we would expect the pulsars to even slow down to spin periods of 50-100 milliseconds during the Roche-lobe decoupling phase”, concludes Thomas Tauris. “That would be in clear contradiction with observational evidence for the existence of millisecond pulsars.”

Original Story Source: Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie News Release>. For Further Reading: Spin-Down of Radio Millisecond Pulsars at Genesis.

NASA’s Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer Retires


For more than 16 years, 2,200 papers in refereed journals, 92 doctoral theses, and more than 1,000 rapid notifications alerting astronomers around the globe to new astronomical activity, the NASA Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer is now retired. It sent the last of its data on January 4th of this year and on January 5th the plucky little satellite was decommissioned. If you’re not familiar with Rossi’s activities, then picture sending back images and data on the extreme environments around white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes… because that’s what made the mission famous.

On December 30, 1995, the mission was launched as XTE from Cape Canaveral, Florida on board a Delta II 7920 rocket. Within weeks it was named in honor of Bruno Rossi, an MIT astronomer and a pioneer of X-ray astronomy and space plasma physics who died in 1993. However, the mission itself didn’t die – it excelled with honors. The entire scientific community recognized the importance of RXTE research and bestowed it with five awards – four Rossi Prizes (1999, 2003, 2006 and 2009) from the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the AAS and the 2004 NWO Spinoza prize, the highest Dutch science award, from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

On board, the Rossi was three scientific instruments housed in one unit. The first was the Proportional Counter Array (PCA), which was centered on the lower end of the energy band and was crafted by Goddard. The second instrument was the High Energy X-Ray Timing Experiment (HEXTE) that could be aimed at very specific targets and was manufactured by the University of California at San Diego for exploring the upper energy range. The last of the trio was the All-Sky Monitor developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. It took in about 80% of the sky during each orbit, delivering astronomers with an unprecedented amount of data on the wide variances of X-Ray sky and allowing them to record bright sources over a period of time as short as a few microseconds up to months. All of this information was taken in over a broad span of energy ranging from 2,000 to 250,000 electron volts.

The Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer asked little and returned much. Over its operating lifetime it gave us new insight in the life cycles of neutron stars and black holes. Through its eyes we learned about magnetars and discovered the first accreting millisecond pulsar. But that’s not all. The RXTE provided hard evidence which supported Einstein’s theory by observing “frame dragging” in the neighborhood of a black hole. Even though the instrumentation would be considered antique by today’s standards, it certainly served its purpose. “The spacecraft and its instruments had been showing their age, and in the end RXTE had accomplished everything we put it up there to do, and much more,” said Tod Strohmayer, RXTE project scientist at Goddard.

According to the NASA news release, the decision to decommission RXTE followed the recommendations of a 2010 review board tasked to evaluate and rank each of NASA’s operating astrophysics missions. The three and a half ton satellite is expected to return to Earth sometime between the years 2014 and 2023, depending on solar activity. It will have a fiery end… burning out like the superstar that it was. To celebrate its career, the scientific community will hold a special session on RXTE during the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Austin, Texas. The session is scheduled for Tuesday, January 10, at 3 p.m. CST. A press conference on new RXTE results will also be held at the meeting on January 10 at 1:45 p.m. EST. The decision to decommission RXTE followed the recommendations of a 2010 review board tasked to evaluate and rank each of NASA’s operating astrophysics missions. “After two days we listened to verify that none of the systems we turned off had autonomously re-activated, and we’ve heard nothing,” said Deborah Knapp, RXTE mission director at Goddard.

On the contrary… We heard a lot from Rossi!

Original Story Source: NASA News Release.

Are Pulsars Giant Permanent Magnets?

Some of the most bizarre phenomena in the universe are neutron stars. Very few things in our universe can rival the density in these remnants of supernova explosions. Neutron stars emit intense radiation from their magnetic poles, and when a neutron star is aligned such that these “beams” of radiation point in Earth’s direction, we can detect the pulses, and refer to said neutron star as a pulsar.

What has been a mystery so far, is how exactly the magnetic fields of pulsars form and behave. Researchers had believed that the magnetic fields form from the rotation of charged particles, and as such should align with the rotational axis of the neutron star. Based on observational data, researchers know this is not the case.

Seeking to unravel this mystery, Johan Hansson and Anna Ponga (Lulea University of Technology, Sweden) have written a paper which outlines a new theory on how the magnetic fields of neutron stars form. Hansson and Ponga theorize that not only can the movement of charged particles form a magnetic field, but also the alignment of the magnetic fields of components that make up the neutron star – similar to the process of forming ferromagnets.

Getting into the physics of Hansson and Ponga’s paper, they suggest that when a neutron star forms, neutron magnetic moments become aligned. The alignment is thought to occur due to it being the lowest energy configuration of the nuclear forces. Basically, once the alignment occurs, the magnetic field of a neutron star is locked in place. This phenomenon essentially makes a neutron star into a giant permanent magnet, something Hansson and Ponga call a “neutromagnet”.

Similar to its smaller permanent magnet cousins, a neutromagnet would be extremely stable. The magnetic field of a neutromagnet is thought to align with the original magnetic field of the “parent” star, which appears to act as a catalyst. What is even more interesting is that the original magnetic field isn’t required to be in the same direction as the spin axis.

One more interesting fact is that with all neutron stars having nearly the same mass, Hansson and Ponga can calculate the strength of the magnetic fields the neutromagnets should generate. Based on their calculations, the strength is about 1012 Tesla’s – almost exactly the observed value detected around the most intense magnetic fields around neutron stars. The team’s calculations appear to solve several unsolved problems regarding pulsars.

Hansson and Ponga’s theory is simple to test – since they state the magnetic field strength of neutron stars cannot exceed 1012 Tesla’s. If a neutron star were to be discovered with a stronger magnetic field than 1012 Tesla’s, the team’s theory would be proven wrong.

Due to the Pauli exclusion principle possibly excluding neutrons aligning in the manner outlined in Hansson and Ponga’s paper, there are some questions regarding the team’s theory. Hansson and Ponga point to experiments that have been performed which suggest that nuclear spins can become ordered, like ferromagnets, stating: “One should remember that the nuclear physics at these extreme circumstances and densities is not known a priori, so several unexpected properties might apply,”

While Hansson and Ponga readily agree their theories are purely speculative, they feel their theory is worth pursuing in more detail.

If you’d like to learn more, you can read the full scientific paper by Hansson & Pong at:

Source: Pulsars: Cosmic Permanent ‘Neutromagnets’ (Hansson & Pong)

Different Supernovae; Different Neutron Stars

Artist concept of a neutron star. Credit: NASA


Astronomers have recognized various ways that stars can collapse to undergo a supernova. In one situation, an iron core collapses. The second involves a lower mass star with oxygen, neon, and magnesium in the core which suddenly captures electrons when the conditions are just right, removing them as a support mechanism and causing the star to collapse. While these two mechanisms make good physical sense, there has never been any observational support showing that both types occur. Until now that is. Astronomers led yb Christian Knigge and Malcolm Coe at the University of Southampton in the UK announced that they have detected two distinct sub populations in the neutron stars that result from these supernova.

To make the discovery, the team studied a large number of a specific sub-class of neutron stars known as Be X-ray binaries (BeXs). These objects are a pair of stars formed by a hot B spectral class stars with hydrogen emission in their spectrum in a binary orbit with a neutron star. The neutron star orbits the more massive B star in an elliptical orbit, siphoning off material as it makes close approaches. As the accreted material strikes the neutron star’s surface it glows brightly in the X-rays, becoming, for a time, an X-ray pulsar allowing astronomers to measure the spin period of the neutron star.

Such systems are common in the Small Magellanic Cloud which appears to have a burst of star forming activity about 60 million years ago, allowing for the massive B stars to be in the prime of their stellar lives. It is estimated that the Small Magellanic Cloud alone has as many BeXs as the entire Milky Way galaxy, despite being 100 times smaller. By studying these systems as well the Large Magellanic Cloud and Milky Way, the team found that there are two overlapping but distinct populations of BeX neutron stars. The first had a short period, averaging around 10 seconds. A second group had an average of around 5 minutes. The team surmises that the two populations are a result of the different supernova formation mechanisms.

The two different formation mechanisms should also lead to another difference. The explosion is expected to give the star a “kick” that can change the orbital characteristics. The electron-captured supernovae are expected to give a kick velocity of less than 50 km/sec whereas the iron core collapse supernovae should be over 200 km/sec. This would mean the iron core collapse stars should have preferentially longer and more eccentric orbits. The team attempted to discern whether this too was supported by their evidence, but only a small fraction of the stars they examined had determined eccentricities. Although there was a small difference, it is too early to determine whether or not it was due to chance.

According to Knigge, “These findings take us back to the most fundamental processes of stellar evolution and lead us to question how supernovae actually work. This opens up numerous new research areas, both on the observational and theoretical fronts.

New NASA Mission Hunts Down Zombie Stars


Neutron stars have been classed as “undead”… real zombie stars. Even though technically defunct, the neutron star continues to shine – and occasionally feed on a neighbor if it gets too close. They are born when a massive star collapses under its gravity and its outer layers are blown far and wide, outshining a billion suns, in a supernova event. What’s left is a stellar corpse… a core of inconceivable density… where one teaspoon would weigh about a billion tons on Earth. How would we study such a curiosity? NASA has proposed a mission called the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) that would detect the zombie and allow us to see into the dark heart of a neutron star.

The core of a neutron star is pretty incredible. Despite the fact that it has blown away most of its exterior and stopped nuclear fusion, it still radiates heat from the explosion and exudes a magnetic field which tips the scales. This intense form of radiation caused by core collapse measures out at over a trillion times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field. If you don’t think that impressive, then think of the size. Originally the star could have been a trillion miles or more in diameter, yet now is compressed to the size of an average city. That makes a neutron star a tiny dynamo – capable of condensing matter into itself at more than 1.4 times the content of the Sun, or at least 460,000 Earths.

“A neutron star is right at the threshold of matter as it can exist – if it gets any denser, it becomes a black hole,” says Dr. Zaven Arzoumanian of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We have no way of creating neutron star interiors on Earth, so what happens to matter under such incredible pressure is a mystery – there are many theories about how it behaves. The closest we come to simulating these conditions is in particle accelerators that smash atoms together at almost the speed of light. However, these collisions are not an exact substitute – they only last a split second, and they generate temperatures that are much higher than what’s inside neutron stars.”

If approved, the NICER mission will be launched by the summer of 2016 and attached robotically to the International Space Station. In September 2011, NASA selected NICER for study as a potential Explorer Mission of Opportunity. The mission will receive $250,000 to conduct an 11-month implementation concept study. Five Mission of Opportunity proposals were selected from 20 submissions. Following the detailed studies, NASA plans to select for development one or more of the five Mission of Opportunity proposals in February 2013.

This is an artist's concept of the NICER instrument on board the International Space Station. NICER is the cube in the foreground on the left. The circular objects protruding from the cube are telescopes that focus X-rays from the pulsar on to the detector. Credit: NASA

What will NICER do? First off, an array of 56 telescopes will gather X-ray information from a neutron stars magnetic poles and hotspots. It is from these areas that our zombie stars release X-rays, and as they rotate create a pulse of light – thereby the term “pulsar”. As the neutron star shrinks, it spins faster and the resultant intense gravity can pull in material from a closely orbiting star. Some of these pulsars spin so fast they can reach speeds of several hundred of rotations per second! What scientists are itching to understand is how matter behaves inside a neutron star and “pinning down the correct Equation Of State (EOS) that most accurately describes how matter responds to increasing pressure. Currently, there are many suggested EOSs, each proposing that matter can be compressed by different amounts inside neutron stars. Suppose you held two balls of the same size, but one was made of foam and the other was made of wood. You could squeeze the foam ball down to a smaller size than the wooden one. In the same way, an EOS that says matter is highly compressible will predict a smaller neutron star for a given mass than an EOS that says matter is less compressible.”

Now all NICER will need to do is help us to measure a pulsar’s mass. Once it is determined, we can get a correct EOS and unlock the mystery of how matter behaves under intense gravity. “The problem is that neutron stars are small, and much too far away to allow their sizes to be measured directly,” says NICER Principal Investigator Dr. Keith Gendreau of NASA Goddard. “However, NICER will be the first mission that has enough sensitivity and time-resolution to figure out a neutron star’s size indirectly. The key is to precisely measure how much the brightness of the X-rays changes as the neutron star rotates.”

So what else does our zombie star do that’s impressive? Because of their extreme gravity in such small volume, they distort space/time in accordance with Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. It is this space “warp” that allows astronomers to reveal the presence of a companion star. It also produces effects like an orbital shift called precession, allowing the pair to orbit around each other causing gravitational waves and producing measurable orbital energy. One of the goals of NICER is to detect these effects. The warp itself will allow the team to determine the neutron star’s size. How? Imagine pushing your finger into a stretchy material – then imagine pushing your whole hand against it. The smaller the neutron star, the more it will warp space and light.

Here light curves become very important. When a neutron star’s hotspots are aligned with our observations, the brightness increases as one rotates into view and dims as it rotates away. This results in a light curve with large waves. But, when space is distorted we’re allowed to view around the curve and see the second hotspot – resulting in a light curve with smoother, smaller waves. The team has models that produce “unique light curves for the various sizes predicted by different EOSs. By choosing the light curve that best matches the observed one, they will get the correct EOS and solve the riddle of matter on the edge of oblivion.”

And breathe life into zombie stars…

Original Story Source: NASA Mission News.

Stellar Superburst: Neutron Star Blows Away Model

[/caption]Imagine an event so catastrophic that it pours more energy out in three hours than the Sun does in a hundred years. Now imagine it a reality. In a study done by Yuri Cavecchi et al. (2011), they’ve witnessed a neutron star outburst which has put all computer modeling for thermodynamic explosions on extreme objects back to square one.

Apparently a strong magnetic field around accreting pulsar IGR J17480-2446 is the culprit for some areas of the star to ignite in the extreme. X-ray binary IGR J17480-2446, as a general rule, should be about one and a half times the mass of the Sun confined in an area of about 25km. This creates a strong gravitational field which extracts gas from its orbiting companion. In turn, this collects on the surface of the primary and kindles a fast, high-energy thermonuclear reaction. In a perfect scenario, this reaction would be spread over the surface evenly, but for some reason in about 10% of case studies some areas burn brighter than others. Just why this happens is a true enigma.

In order to better understand the phenomena, theoretical models were created to test out spin rates. They suggest that rapid rotation stops the burning material from spreading uniformly – much like the Coriolis force develops terrestrial hurricanes. Another hypothesis proposes these conflagrations ride on global-scale waves where one side stays cool and dim as it rises, while the other remains hot and bright. But just which one is viable in the case of this strange pulsar?

“We explore the origin of Type I burst oscillations in IGR J17480–2446 and conclude that they are not caused by global modes in the neutron star ocean. We also show that the Coriolis force is not able to confine an oscillation-producing hot-spot on the stellar surface.” says lead author Yuri Cavecchi (University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands). “The most likely scenario is that the burst oscillations are produced by a hot-spot confined by hydromagnetic stresses.”

What makes the astronomers think this way? One explanation might be the strange properties of J17480 itself. While it obeys the rules when it comes to forming bright patches during thermonuclear events, it break them when it comes to spin rates. Why does this particular star only rotate about 10 times per second when the next slowest does it at 245? This is where the magnetic field theory comes into play. Perhaps when explosions occur, it’s held in place by this invisible, yet powerful, force.

“More theoretical work is needed to confirm this, but in the case of J17480 it is a very plausible explanation for our observations”, says Cavecchi. Co-author Anna Watts further explains their new models – while interesting – might not account for all non-uniform events seen in similar situations. “The new mechanism may only work in stars like this one, with magnetic fields that are strong enough to stop the flame front from spreading. For other stars with this odd burning behavior, the old models might still apply.”

Original Information Source: Netherlands Research School for Astronomy. For Further Reading: Implications of burst oscillations from the slowly rotating accreting pulsar IGR 17480-2446 in the globular cluster Terzan 5.

Cosmic Collisions – The Astronomical Alchemist

[/caption]Here on Earth the practice of alchemy once had its era – trying to turn lead into gold. However, somewhere out there in the universal scheme of things, that process is a reality and not a myth. Instead of a scientist desperately looking for a sublime formula, it just might happen when neutron stars merge in a violent collision.

We’re all aware of the nuclear fusion manner in which elements are created from stars. Hydrogen is burned into helium, and so up the line until it reaches iron. It’s just the way stellar physics work and we accept it. To date, science has theorized that heavier elements were the creation of supernovae events, but new studies done by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA) and affiliated to the Excellence Cluster Universe and of the Free University of Brussels (ULB) indicate they may be able to form during encounters with ejected matter from neutron stars.

”The source of about half of the heaviest elements in the Universe has been a mystery for a long time,“ says Hans-Thomas Janka, senior scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA) and within the Excellence Cluster Universe. ”The most popular idea has been, and may still be, that they originate from supernova explosions that end the lives of massive stars. But newer models do not support this idea.“

Although it might take millions of years for such a tryst to take place, it’s not impossible for two neutron stars in a binary system to eventually meet. Scientists at the MPA and the ULB have now simulated all stages of the processes through computer modeling and taken note at the formation of chemical elements which are the offspring.

”In just a few split seconds after the merger of the two neutron stars, tidal and pressure forces eject extremely hot matter equivalent to several Jupiter masses,“ explains Andreas Bauswein, who carried out the simulations at the MPA. Once this so-called plasma has cooled to less than 10 billion degrees, a multitude of nuclear reactions take place, including radioactive decays, and enable the production of heavy elements. ”The heavy elements are `recycled’ several times in various reaction chains involving the fission of super-heavy nuclei, which makes the final abundance distribution become largely insensitive to the initial conditions provided by the merger model,“ adds Stephane Goriely, ULB researcher and nuclear astrophysics expert of the team.

Their findings agree well with observations of abundance distributions in both the Solar System and old stars. When compared with possible neutron star collisions occurring in the Milky Way, the conclusions are the same – this speculation could very well be the explanation for the distribution of heavier elements. The team plans on continuing their studies while on the look out “for detecting the transient celestial sources that should be associated with the ejection of radioactive matter in neutron star mergers.” Like a supernova event, the heat from the radioactive decay will shine like… well…

Gold in the dark.

Original Story Source: Max Planck Institut News. For Further Reading: R-process nucleosynthesis in dynamically ejected matter of neutron star mergers.