A Neutron Star 'Glitching' is Finally Recorded By Astronomers After Three Years of Waiting

Wednesday, 11 April 2018 - 8:19PM
Space
Astronomy
Wednesday, 11 April 2018 - 8:19PM
A Neutron Star 'Glitching' is Finally Recorded By Astronomers After Three Years of Waiting
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NASA/CXC/University of Toronto/M. Durant, et al.

Neutron stars are definitely not the largest objects in the universe, but they are the most massive (aside from black holes).

A typical neutron star forms from the collapsed remains of a previous star, and is often a tiny 12.5 miles (20 kilometers) in diameter while containing almost one and a half times the mass of our sun. This makes them absurdly dense and gives them powerful gravitational forces, and laws of physics can begin to get weird under these conditions. 

For example, there are times when a neutron star will suddenly change its rate of rotation, often speeding up, a phenomenon called "glitching". The reasons behind the glitching are thought to involve the neutron star's shaky and powerful magnetic fields, but astronomers have never completely pinned down what causes a glitch. But they did just observe one, after a years long mission.

Sitting about 1,000 lightyears from Earth, the Vela Pulsar (for reference, a pulsar is a fast-moving neutron star) was the subject of a three year long mission to catch it in the act of glitching, which just ended after one was picked up via radio telescope. It's known as a serial glitcher, and a team of researchers have been watching it closely from two different telescopes, at the Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory in Tasmania and the Ceduna Observatory in South Australia.



This is the very first time that anyone's picked up a neutron star glitch on a radio star telescope, and it'll allow us to study them much more closely. They're not easy things to gather data on: they occur once every few years or so, but they're still extremely unpredictable and last just a fraction of a second. 

According to Jim Palfreyman, a PhD candidate and researcher from the University of Tasmania, said the following in a press release from the school:

Opening quote
"We knew a glitch happens about every three years, but like an earthquake, no one can predict one. We knew that if we could capture the glitch and the individual pulses it would provide us a wealth of information, including how matter behaves at extreme temperatures and pressures."
Closing quote


Palfreyman goes on to describe a neutron star with an interesting comparison: if you were to take just a cup of material from the dense Vela Pulsar, that cup would weigh as much as Mount Everest.

And for a star that dense to "glitch" out for a fraction of a second just goes to show how weird and fascinating these things are.

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