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Neutron Stars and Pulsars

Neutron Stars

A neutron star is about 20 km in diameter and has the mass of about 1.4 times that of our Sun. This means that a neutron star is so dense that on Earth, one teaspoonful would weigh a billion tons! Because of its small size and high density, a neutron star possesses a surface gravitational field about 2 x 1011 times that of Earth. Neutron stars can also have magnetic fields a million times stronger than the strongest magnetic fields produced on Earth.

Neutron stars are one of the possible ends for a star. They result from massive stars which have mass greater than 4 to 8 times that of our Sun. After these stars have finished burning their nuclear fuel, they undergo a supernova explosion. This explosion blows off the outer layers of a star into a beautiful supernova remnant. The central region of the star collapses under gravity. It collapses so much that protons and electrons combine to form neutrons. Hence the name "neutron star".

Neutron stars may appear in supernova remnants, as isolated objects, or in binary systems. Four known neutron stars are thought to have planets. When a neutron star is in a binary system, astronomers are able to measure its mass. From a number of such binaries seen with radio or X-ray telescopes, neutron star masses has been found to be about 1.4 times the mass of the Sun. For binary systems containing an unknown object, this information helps distinguish whether the object is a neutron star or a black hole, since black holes are more massive than neutron stars.

What is a Pulsar and What Makes it Pulse?

Simply put, pulsars are rotating neutron stars. And pulsars appear to pulse because they rotate!

Pulsars were discovered in late 1967 by graduate student Jocelyn Bell Burnell as radio sources that blink on and off at a constant frequency. Now we observe the brightest ones at almost every wavelength of light. Pulsars are spinning neutron stars that have jets of particles moving almost at the speed of light streaming out above their magnetic poles. These jets produce very powerful beams of light. For a similar reason that "true north" and "magnetic north" are different on Earth, the magnetic and rotational axes of a pulsar are also misaligned. Therefore, the beams of light from the jets sweep around as the pulsar rotates, just as the spotlight in a lighthouse does. Like a ship in the ocean that sees only regular flashes of light, we see pulsars "turn on and off" as the beam sweeps over the Earth. Neutron stars for which we see such pulses are called "pulsars", or sometimes "spin-powered pulsars," indicating that the source of energy is the rotation of the neutron star.

(Source: "Neutron Stars and Pulsars" - NASA's Imagine the Universe.)

Recently Updated
Star crust 10 billion times stronger than steel Last Updated on 2009-05-06 00:00:00 BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (May 6, 2009) -- Research by a theoretical physicist at Indiana University shows that the crusts of neutron stars are 10 billion times stronger than steel or any other of the earth's strongest metal alloys. FIGURE CAPTION – Illustration of a neutron star -- the core remains of a star once bigger than the Sun yet now small enough to fit within the Washington Beltway -- containing densely packed matter. (Credit: Image courtesy of NASA) Charles Horowitz, a professor in the IU College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Physics, came to the conclusion after large-scale molecular dynamics computer simulations were conducted at Indiana University and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The research will appear Friday (May 8) in Physical Review Letters. Exhibiting extreme gravity while rotating as fast as 700 times per second, neutron stars are massive stars that... More »