An Unknown Energy Source Powers Massive X-Ray Superbursts Near The Neutron Stars’ Surface

There is “something”, an unknown energy source of titanic magnitude in the outermost layers of accreting neutron star surfaces.

This unknown force powers massive X-ray superbursts near the surface of neutron stars, of which interiors still largely remain a mystery.

“Neutron stars are really the most extreme physics lab we have to observe,” said Tod Strohmayer of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. “If you can study neutron stars, you can understand the physics of very dense matter” down to the most exotic particles.”

A small, dense object only 12 miles in diameter is responsible for this beautiful X-ray nebula that spans 150 light years. At the center of this image made by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is a very young and powerful pulsar, known as PSR B1509-58, or B1509 for short. The pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star which is spewing energy out into the space around it to create complex and intriguing structures, including one that resembles a large cosmic hand. Image courtesy NASA.

Neutron stars harbor conditions that can never be duplicated in any Earth laboratory, may re-create a state of matter that existed for about one-millionth of a second after the moment of cosmic creation known as the Big Bang.

A neutron star is created during the death of a giant star more massive than the sun, compressed to a tiny size but with gravitational fields exceeded only by those of black holes. In the intense, neutron-rich environment, nuclear reactions cause strong explosions that manifest themselves as X-ray bursts and the X-ray superbursts that are more rare and 1000 times more powerful.

“Scientists are intrigued by what exactly powers these massive explosions, and understanding this would yield important insights about the fundamental forces in nature, especially on the astronomical/cosmological scale,” said Peter Moller of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Theoretical Division.

“The terrestrial experimental study of Weak Interactions in highly deformed, neutron-rich nuclei that FRIB can potentially provide is lent support by this ground-breaking Nature letter, since Los Alamos has been one of the few homes to theoretical studies of deformed nuclei and their role in astrophysics, and remains so to this day,” said Moller.

The so-called “Weak Interactions,” are prominent in stellar explosions. The weak nuclear force is one of four fundamental sources, such as gravity, which interacts with the neutrinos; it is responsible for some types of radioactive decay.

At Los Alamos scientists have carried out detailed calculations of the specific, individual beta-decay properties of thousands of nuclides, all with different decay properties, and created databases with these calculated properties.

The databases are then used at MSU as input into models that trace the decay pathways with the passage of time in accreting neutron stars and compute the total energy that is released in these reactions.

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