Remember that episode from Star Trek, "Evolution," when the Nanites began eating the ship's computers as the crew was studying a neutron star that was about to erupt as it accreted material? Neutron stars are extremely dense remnants of exploded stars about the size of Manhattan consisting of tightly packed neutrons.
Well, the universe is imitating Star Trek again: this past June, in Circinus X-1, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory discovered a system where a neutron star, in orbit around a star several times the mass of the Sun, about 20,000 light years from Earth, was shooting out an extended x-ray jet.
Neutrons stars rank at or near the top of freaky phenomena found in our Universe. In the early 1930s, California Institute of Technology astrophysicist, Fred Zwicky, an immigrant from Bulgaria, focused his attention on a question that had long troubled astronomers: the appearance of random, unexplained points of light, new stars.
It occurred to Zwicky that if a star collapsed to the sort of density found in the core of atoms, the result would be an unimaginably compacted core: atoms would be crushed together with their electrons squeezed into the nucleus, forming neutrons and a neutron star, with a core so dense that a single spoonful would weigh 200 billion pounds. But there's more, Zwicky concluded: with the collapse of the star there would be huge amounts of leftover energy that would result in a massive explosion, the biggest in the known universe that we called today supernovas.
Most neutron stars house incredibly large magnetic fields. If they
are spinning rapidly they make fabulous clocks, cosmic radio beacons we
call pulsars. Pulsars can keep time to an accuracy better that one
microsecond per year. Some pulsars generate more than 1000 pulses per
second, which means, as Lawrence Krauss wrote in The Physics of Star Trek,
that an object with the mass of the Sun packed into an object 10 to 20
kilometers across is rotating over 1000 times per second, or more that
half the speed of light!
Posted by Casey Kazan
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