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Spotty neutron stars

1:48am, May 18, 2005

Spinning up to hundreds of times a second and packing an entire sun's mass into a sphere just slightly wider than the length of Manhattan, a neutron star ranks among the weirdest objects in the universe. Astronomers have for the first time discerned a hot spot on the surfaces of three of these cosmic oddities.

The X-ray–emitting spots, estimated to range in size from the area of a football field to that of a golf course, are the smallest features that astronomers have detected on objects so far away, in this case from 500 to 2,000 light-years from Earth.

Researchers have proposed that such a hot spot arises when the strong magnetic fields around a cooling neutron star funnels energy back onto a small patch of the star's surface. According to this theory, this magnetic funneling happens in the same way on all neutron stars and all hot spots should be about the same size.

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