Astronomers discover most massive neutron star yet known PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 29 October 2010 14:41

Astronomers using the U.S. National Science Foundation's Green Bank Telescope (GBT) have discovered the most massive neutron star yet found, a discovery with strong and wide-ranging impacts across several fields of physics and astrophysics.

"This neutron star is twice as massive as our Sun. This is surprising, and that much mass means that several theoretical models for the internal composition of neutron stars now are ruled out," said Paul Demorest, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). "This mass measurement also has implications for our understanding of all matter at extremely high densities and many details of nuclear physics," he added.

Neutron stars are the superdense "corpses" of massive stars that have exploded as supernovae. With all their mass packed into a sphere the size of a small city, their protons and electrons are crushed together into neutrons. A neutron star can be several times more dense than an atomic nucleus, and a thimbleful of neutron-star material would weigh more than 500 million tons. This tremendous density makes neutron stars an ideal natural " laboratory" for studying the most dense and exotic states of matter known to physics.

The scientists used an effect of Albert Einstein's theory of General Relativity to measure the mass of the neutron star and its orbiting companion, a white dwarf star. The neutron star is a pulsar, emitting lighthouse-like beams of radio waves that sweep through space as it rotates. This pulsar, called PSR J1614-2230, spins 317 times per second, and the companion completes an orbit in just under nine days. The pair, some 3,000 light-years distant, are in an orbit seen almost exactly edge-on from Earth. That orientation was the key to making the mass measurement.

As the orbit carries the white dwarf directly in front of the pulsar, the radio waves from the pulsar that reach Earth must travel very close to the white dwarf. This close passage causes them to be delayed in their arrival by the distortion of spacetime produced by the white dwarf's gravitation. This effect, called the Shapiro Delay, allowed the scientists to precisely measure the masses of both stars.

"We got very lucky with this system. The rapidly-rotating pulsar gives us a signal to follow throughout the orbit, and the orbit is almost perfectly edge-on. In addition, the white dwarf is particularly massive for a star of that type. This unique combination made the Shapiro Delay much stronger and thus easier to measure," said Scott Ransom, also of NRAO.

The researchers expected the neutron star to have roughly one and a half times the mass of the Sun. Instead, their observations revealed it to be twice as massive as the Sun. That much mass, they say, changes their understanding of a neutron star's composition. Some theoretical models postulated that, in addition to neutrons, such stars also would contain certain other exotic subatomic particles called hyperons or condensates of kaons.

"Our results rule out those ideas," Ransom said.

The findings will be published Thursday in the scientific journal Nature.