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.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Cubic Neutrons


The nature of the highly compressed matter that makes up neutron stars has been the subject of much speculation. For example, it’s been suggested that under extreme gravitational compression the neutrons may collapse into quark matter composed of just strange quarks – which suggests that you should start calling a particularly massive neutron star, a strange star.

However, an alternate model suggests that within massive neutron stars – rather than the neutrons collapsing into more fundamental particles, they might just be packed more tightly together by adopting a cubic shape. This might allow such cubic neutrons to be packed into about 75% of the volume that spherical neutrons would normally occupy.

Some rethinking about the internal structure of neutron stars has been driven by the 2010 discovery that the neutron star PSR J1614–2230, has a mass of nearly two solar masses – which is a lot for a neutron star that probably has a diameter of less than 20 kilometres.

PSR J1614–2230, described by some as a ‘superheavy’ neutron star, might seem an ideal candidate for the formation of quark matter – or some other exotic transformation – resulting from the extreme compression of neutron star material. However,  calculations suggest that such a significant rearrangement of matter would shrink the star’s volume down to less than the Schwarzschild radius for two solar masses – meaning that PSR J1614–2230 should immediately form a black hole.

But nope, PSR J1614–2230 is there for all to observe, a superheavy neutron star, which is hence almost certainly composed of nothing more exotic that neutrons throughout, as well as a surface layer of more conventional atomic matter.

Modelling the quantum field waveforms of neutrons under increasing densities suggests a cubic, rather than a spherical, geometry is more likely. Credit: Llanes-Estrada and Navarro.

Nonetheless, stellar-sized black holes can and do form from neutron stars. For example, if a neutron star in a binary system continues drawing mass of its companion star it will eventually reach the Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff limit. This is the ultimate mass limit for neutron stars – similar in concept to the Chandrasekhar limit for white dwarf stars. Once a white dwarf reaches the Chandrasekhar limit of 1.4 solar masses it detonates as a Type 1a supernova. Once, a neutron star reaches the Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff mass limit, it becomes a black hole.

Due to our current limited understanding of neutron star physics, no-one is quite sure what the Tolman–Oppenheimer–Volkoff mass limit is, but it is thought to lie somewhere between 1.5 – 3.0 solar masses.

So, PSR J1614–2230 seems likely to be close to this neutron star mass limit, even though it is still composed of neutrons. But there must be some method whereby a neutron star’s mass can be compressed into a smaller volume, otherwise it could never form a black hole. So, there should be some intermediary state whereby a neutron star’s neutrons become progressively compressed into a smaller volume until the Schwarzschild radius for its mass is reached.

Llanes-Estrada and Navarro propose that this problem could be solved if, under extreme gravitational pressure, the neutrons’ geometry became deformed into smaller cubic shapes to allow tighter packing, although the particles still remain as neutrons.

So if it turns out that the universe does not contain strange stars after all, having cubic neutron stars instead would still be agreeably unusual.

Further reading: Llanes-Estrada and Navarro. Cubic neutrons.

Even ‘Weakling’ Magnetars are Strong and Powerful


The name alone, “magnetar” elicits a magnificent, powerful and strong astronomical object, and most of these “magnetic stars” are whirling, X-ray blasting dynamos, shooting out strong bursts of energy. But there are some magnetars which seem to have a softer, quieter side, and are called soft gamma repeaters and anomalous X-ray pulsars. However, they might not be as soft as they appear. A team of astronomers using the several different space- and Earth-based observatories have found a supposed ‘weakling’ was only masking its superpowers. The new findings indicate the presence of a huge internal magnetic field in these seemingly less powerful pulsars, which is not matched by their surface magnetic field.

Magnetars are a type of neutron stars, which are the collapsed remains of massive, rapidly rotating stars. They collapses down to tiny cores, with the hot neutron liquid rising and falling from the center to the crust setting up a dynamo effect, creating that incredible magnetic field. Although they are on average only about 30km in diameter, a magnetar can have a magnetic field billions of times that of our Sun.

It was thought that dramatic flares and bursts of energy came from only the strong class of magnetars, but these same features have been observed emanating from a weakly magnetized, slowly rotating pulsar.

“We have now discovered bursts and flares, i.e. magnetar-like activity, from a new pulsar whose magnetic field is very low,” said Dr Silvia Zane, from UCL’s (University College London) Mullard Space Science Laboratory, and an author of the research.

The neutron star, SGR 0418+5729, was discovered on June 5, 2009 when the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected bursts of gamma-rays from this object. Follow-up observations four days later with the Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) showed that, in addition to sporadic X-ray bursts, the neutron star exhibits persistent X-ray emission with regular pulsations that indicate that the star has a rotational period of 9.1 seconds.

What makes SGR 0418 different from similar neutron stars is that, unlike those stars that are observed to be gradually rotating more slowly, continued monitoring of SGR 0418 over a span of 490 days has revealed no evidence that its rotation is decreasing.

“It is the very first time this has been observed and the discovery poses the question of where the powering mechanism is in this case. At this point, we are also interested in how many of the other normal, low field neutron stars that populate the galaxy can at some point wake up and manifest themselves as a flaring source,” said Zane.

The team of astronomers, led by Dr. Nanda Rea of Institut de Ciencies de l’Espai (ICE-CSIC, IEEC) in Barcelona, wonder how large an imbalance can be maintained between the surface and interior magnetic fields. SGR 0418 represents an important test case.

“If further observations by Chandra and other satellites push the surface magnetic field limit lower, then theorists may have to dig deeper for an explanation of this enigmatic object,” said Rea.

Sources: Chandra Blog, University College, London (via Eurekalert)

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Stellar Quakes and Glitches

The upper crust of a neutron star is thought to be composed of crystallized iron, may have centimeter high mountains and experiences occasional ‘star quakes’ which may precede what is technically known as a glitch. These glitches and the subsequent post-glitch recovery period may offer some insight into the nature and behavior of the superfluid core of neutron stars.

The events leading up to a neutron star quake go something like this. All neutron stars tend to ‘spin down’ during their life cycle, as their magnetic field applies the brakes to the star’s spin. Magnetars, having particularly powerful magnetic fields, experience more powerful braking.

During this dynamic process, two conflicting forces operate on the geometry of the star. The very rapid spin tends to push out the star’s equator, making it an oblate spheroid. However, the star’s powerful gravity is also working to make the star conform to hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e. a sphere).

Thus, as the star spins down, its crust – which is reportedly 10 billion times the strength of steel – tends to buckle but not break. There may be a process like a tectonic shifting of crustal plates – which create ‘mountains’ only centimeters high, although from a base extending for several kilometres over the star’s surface. This buckling may relieve some of stresses the crust is experiencing – but, as the process continues, the tension builds up and up until it ‘gives’ suddenly.

The sudden collapse of a 10 centimeter high mountain on the surface of a neutron star is considered to be a possible candidate event for the generation of detectable  gravitational waves – although this is yet to be detected. But, even more dramatically, the quake event may be either coupled with – or perhaps even triggered by – a readjustment in the neutron’s stars magnetic field.

It may be that the tectonic shifting of crustal segments works to ‘wind ‘up’ the magnetic lines of force sticking out past the neutron star’s surface. Then, in a star quake event, there is a sudden and powerful energy release – which may be a result of the star’s magnetic field dropping to a lower energy level, as the star’s geometry readjusts itself. This energy release involves a huge flash of x and gamma rays.

In the case of a magnetar-type neutron star, this flash can outshine most other x-ray sources in the universe. Magnetar flashes also pump out substantial gamma rays – although these are referred to as soft gamma ray (SGR) emissions to distinguish them from more energetic gamma ray bursts (GRB) resulting from a range of other phenomena in the universe.

However, ‘soft’ is a bit of a misnomer as either burst type will kill you just as effectively if you are close enough. The magnetar SGR 1806-20 had one of largest (SGR) events on record in December 2004.

Along with the quake and the radiation burst, neutron stars may also experience a glitch – which is a sudden and temporary increase in the neutron star’s spin. This is partly a result of conservation of angular momentum as the star’s equator sucks itself in a bit (the old ‘skater pulls arms in’ analogy), but mathematical modeling suggests that this may not be sufficient to fully account for the temporary ‘spin up’ associated with a neutron star glitch.

Theoretical model of a neutron star's interior. An iron crystal core overlies a region of neutron-enriched atoms, below which is the degenerate matter of the core - where sub-atomic particles are stretched and twisted by magnetic and gravitational forces. Credit: Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB).

González-Romero and Blázquez-Salcedo have proposed that an internal readjustment in the thermodynamics of the superfluid core may also play a role here, where the initial glitch heats the core and the post-glitch period involves the core and the crust achieving a new thermal equilibrium – at least until the next glitch.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Making Sense Of The Neutron Zoo

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.

Neutron Star at Core of Cas A Has Carbon Atmosphere

A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. Credit: NASA/CXC

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (Cas A) has always been an enigma. While the explosion that created this supernova was obviously a powerful event, the visual brightness of the outburst that occurred over 300 years ago was much less than a normal supernova, — and in fact, was overlooked in the 1600’s — and astronomers don’t know why. Another mystery is whether the explosion that produced Cas A left behind a neutron star, black hole, or nothing at all. But in 1999, astronomers discovered an unknown bright object at the core of Cas A. Now, new observations with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory show this object is a neutron star. But the enigmas don’t end there: this neutron star has a carbon atmosphere. This is the first time this type of atmosphere has been detected around such a small, dense object.

A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, with an artist's impression of the neutron star at the center of the remnant. The discovery of a carbon atmosphere on this neutron star resolves a ten-year old mystery surrounding this object.  Credit: Chandra image: NASA/CXC/Southampton/W.Ho; illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, with an artist's impression of the neutron star at the center of the remnant. The discovery of a carbon atmosphere on this neutron star resolves a ten-year old mystery surrounding this object. Credit: Chandra image: NASA/CXC/Southampton/W.Ho; illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

The object at the core is very small – only about 20 km wide, which was key to identifying it as a neutron star, said Craig Heinke from the University of Alberta. Heinke is co-author with Wynn Ho of the University of Southampton, UK on a paper which appears in the Nov. 5 edition of Nature.

“The only two kinds of stars that we know of that are this small are neutron stars and black holes,” Heinke told Universe Today. “We can rule out that this is a black hole, because no light can escape from black holes, so any X-rays we see from black holes are actually from material falling down into the black hole. Such X-rays would be highly variable, since you never see the same material twice, but we don’t see any fluctuations in the brightness of this object.”

Heinke said the Chandra X-ray Observatory is the only telescope that has sharp enough vision to observe this object inside such a bright supernova remnant.

But the most unusual aspect of this neutron star is its carbon atmosphere. Neutron stars are mostly made of neutrons, but they have a thin layer of normal matter on the surface, including a thin–10 cm–very hot atmosphere. Previously studied neutron stars all have hydrogen atmospheres, which is expected, as the intense gravity of the neutron star stratifies the atmosphere, putting the lightest element, hydrogen, on top.

But not so with this object in Cas A.

“We were able to produce models for the X-ray radiation of a neutron star with several different possible atmospheres,” Heinke said in an email interview. “Only the carbon atmosphere can explain all the data we see, so we are pretty sure this neutron star has a carbon atmosphere, the first time we’ve seen a different atmosphere on a neutron star.”

An artist's impression of the neutron star in Cas A showing the tiny extent of the carbon atmosphere. The Earth's atmosphere is shown at the same scale as the neutron star.  Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
An artist's impression of the neutron star in Cas A showing the tiny extent of the carbon atmosphere. The Earth's atmosphere is shown at the same scale as the neutron star. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

An artist’s impression of the neutron star in Cas A showing the tiny extent of the carbon atmosphere. The Earth’s atmosphere is shown at the same scale as the neutron star. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

So how does Heinke and his team explain the lack of hydrogen and helium on this neutron star? Think of Cas A as being a baby.

“We think we understand that as due to the really young age of this object–we see it at the tender age of only 330 years old, compared to other neutron stars that are thousands of years old,” he said. “During the supernova explosion that created this neutron star (as the core of the star collapses down to a city-sized object, with an incredibly high density higher than atomic nuclei), the neutron star was heated to high temperatures, up to a billion degrees. It’s now cooled down to a few million degrees, but we think its high temperatures were sufficient to produce nuclear fusion on the neutron star surface, fusing the hydrogen and helium to carbon.”

Because of this discovery, researchers now have access to the complete life cycle of a supernova, and will learn more about the role exploding stars play in the makeup of the universe. For example, most minerals found on Earth are the products of supernovae.

“This discovery helps us understand how neutron stars are born in violent supernova explosions,” said Heinke.

Source: Interview with Craig Heinke