Public Release: 

'Weird science' uncovered inside neutron star

University of Alberta

A University of Alberta astronomer has glimpsed the inner working of a neutron star and found a unique world where the physics can be described as "weird." Craig Heinke's team found the neutron star's core contained a superfluid, a friction-less liquid that could seemingly defy the laws of gravity.

"If you could put some of this superfluid in a jar it would flow up the walls of the container and over the edge," said Heinke.

Heinke says the core of the neutron star also contains a superconductor, a perfect electrical conductor. "An electric current in a superconductor never loses energy--it could keep circulating forever."

These discoveries came about when the researchers used NASA's Chanda space satellite telescope to investigate a sudden temperature drop on one particular neutron star 11,000 light years from Earth. A neutron star is the extremely dense core left behind from an exploding star, or supernova.

Heinke says this neutron star, known as the Cassiopeia A offered the researchers a great opportunity.

"It's only 330 years old," said Heinke. "We've got ringside seats to studying the life cycle of a neutron star from its collapse to its present, cooling off state."

The researchers determined that the neutron star's surface temperature is dropping because its core recently transformed into a superfluid state and is venting off heat in the form of neutrinos, sub atomic particles that flood the universe. Here on Earth our bodies are constantly bombarded by neutrinos, with 100 billion neutrinos passing harmlessly though our eyes every second.

They also found that the neutron star contains a superconductor, the highest temperature (millions of degrees) superconductor known.

This research helps us to better understand the life cycles of stars, as well as the behavior of matter at incredibly high densities.

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Heinke is a co-author of the research published this month in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The research was led by Peter Shternin (St. Petersburg, Russia).

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