What a blast!

Take a dense, collapsed star, set a helium-rich star in orbit around it, and you’ve got the

ingredients for a series of explosions, each lasting about 10 seconds and releasing as much

energy as the sun does in an entire year.

Such eruptions can happen several times a day on the surface of a neutron star—the superdense

cinder left behind when a massive star jettisons its outer layers and collapses. Now,

astronomers have glimpsed a much rarer, longer-lived neutron-star explosion that unleashed

100 times as much energy.

In the more common explosions, a neutron star, as heavy as the sun but only 20 kilometers

wide, snatches gas from a nearby companion rich in helium. As the stolen helium piles up on

the neutron star’s surface, helium nuclei fuse explosively, briefly hurling a torrent of X rays

into space.

Last year, astronomers using the Rossi X ray Timing Explorer satellite examined a neutron

star and its partner that lie some 20,000 light-years from Earth. Scientists had previously

observed short-lived outbursts from this two-star system, known as 4U 1820-30. But during

the new study, the system emitted a flare that lasted for 3 hours and spewed as much energy

as the sun does in a century.

Tod E. Strohmayer of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and his colleagues

suggest that the flare stemmed from the neutron star’s short-lived helium explosions.

When three helium nuclei fuse and ignite, they produce a carbon nucleus. Over time, this carbon

ash may build up under layers of new helium captured from the neutron star’s companion.

When enough carbon nuclei accumulate, they would squeeze together to make even heavier

elements, liberating a tremendous amount of energy in the process—about 1,000 times as

much as a helium explosion produces. These rare explosions would last for hours because the

energy generated by the carbon, buried some 100 meters beneath the neutron star’s surface,

would take time to leak out, Strohmayer notes.

He estimates that the explosion observed by Rossi required about a billion trillion kilograms

of carbon heated to a billion kelvins. Theorists calculate that the neutron star seizes

matter at a million billion kilograms per second. At that rate, it would take 1 to 2 years to

accumulate enough carbon to generate the explosion, Strohmayer reported last month at a

meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu.

Carbon explosions are “the best bet” to explain the observations, says Edward F. Brown of

the University of Chicago. However, his calculations suggest that a neutron star’s surface can’t

reach temperatures as high as 1 billion kelvins. To ignite carbon at a slightly more modest

temperature, the star would require a billion times as much of the material, and it would take

a century to stockpile that much carbon, Brown notes.

Deeming it unlikely that the Rossi craft happened to record a once-in-a-century explosion,

Brown says he’s trying to determine if the neutron star could reach temperatures higher than

he had at first calculated or if the star could have pulled material from its partner even more

rapidly than Strohmayer assumed.

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