Collision illuminates the mysterious makeup of neutron stars

Recently detected crash provides hints to size, innards of these stellar cores

neutron star collision

SMASH HIT  The recently detected violent collision of two neutron stars (illustrated) is helping scientists understand the strange stuff that makes up the incredibly dense objects.

Mark Garlick/University of Warwick

On astrophysicists’ charts of star stuff, there’s a substance that still merits the label “here be dragons.” That poorly understood material is found inside neutron stars — the collapsed remnants of once-mighty stars — and is now being mapped out, as scientists better characterize the weird matter.

The detection of two colliding neutron stars, announced in October (SN: 11/11/17, p. 6), has accelerated the pace of discovery. Since the event, which scientists spied with gravitational waves and various wavelengths of light, several studies have placed new limits on the sizes and masses possible for such stellar husks and on how squishy or stiff they are.  

“The properties of neutron star matter are not very well known,” says physicist Andreas Bauswein of the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies in Germany. Part of the problem is that the matter inside a neutron star is so dense that a teaspoonful would weigh a billion tons, so the substance can’t be reproduced in any laboratory on Earth.

In the collision, the two neutron stars merged into a single behemoth. This remnant may have immediately collapsed into a black hole. Or it may have formed a bigger, spinning neutron star that, propped up by its own rapid rotation, existed for a few milliseconds — or potentially much longer — before collapsing. The speed of the object’s demise is helping scientists figure out whether neutron stars are made of material that is relatively soft, compressing when squeezed like a pillow, or whether the neutron star stuff is stiff, standing up to pressure. This property, known as the equation of state, determines the radius of a neutron star of a particular mass.

An immediate collapse seems unlikely, two teams of researchers say. Telescopes spotted a bright glow of light after the collision. That glow could only appear if there were a delay before the merged neutron star collapsed into a black hole, says physicist David Radice of Princeton University because when the remnant collapses, “all the material around falls inside of the black hole immediately.” Instead, the neutron star stuck around for at least several milliseconds, the scientists propose.

Simulations indicate that if neutron stars are soft, they will collapse more quickly because they will be smaller than stiff neutron stars of the same mass. So the inferred delay allows Radice and colleagues to rule out theories that predict neutron stars are extremely squishy, the researchers report in a paper published November 13 at 

Using similar logic, Bauswein and colleagues rule out some of the smallest sizes that neutron stars of a particular mass might be. For example, a neutron star 60 percent more massive than the sun can’t have a radius smaller than 10.7 kilometers, they determine. These results appear in a paper published November 29 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Other researchers set a limit on the maximum mass a neutron star can have. Above a certain heft, neutron stars can no longer support their own weight and collapse into a black hole. If this maximum possible mass were particularly large, theories predict that the newly formed behemoth neutron star would have lasted hours or days before collapsing. But, in a third study, two physicists determined that the collapse came much more quickly than that, on the scale of milliseconds rather than hours. A long-lasting, spinning neutron star would dissipate its rotational energy into the material ejected from the collision, making the stream of glowing matter more energetic than what was seen, physicists Ben Margalit and Brian Metzger of Columbia University report. In a paper published November 21 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the pair concludes that the maximum possible mass is smaller than about 2.2 times that of the sun.

“We didn’t have many constraints on that prior to this discovery,” Metzger says. The result also rules out some of the stiffer equations of state because stiffer matter tends to support larger masses without collapsing.

Some theories predict that bizarre forms of matter are created deep inside neutron stars. Neutron stars might contain a sea of free-floating quarks — particles that are normally confined within larger particles like protons or neutrons. Other physicists suggest that neutron stars may contain hyperons, particles made with heavier quarks known as strange quarks, not found in normal matter. Such unusual matter would tend to make neutron stars softer, so pinning down the equation of state with additional neutron star crashes could eventually resolve whether these exotic beasts of physics indeed lurk in this unexplored territory.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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