'Weird science' uncovered inside neutron star

Craig Heinke's team found that a neutron star's core contained a superfluid, a frictionless liquid that could seemingly defy the laws of gravity.

By Brian Murphy on February 24, 2011

(Edmonton) A University of Alberta astronomer has glimpsed the inner working of a neutron star and found a world where the physics can only be described as “weird.” Craig Heinke’s team found the neutron star’s core contained a superfluid, a frictionless 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.

A neutron star is the extremely dense core left behind from an exploding star, or supernova.

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 neutron star known as Cassiopeia A. The star is 11,000 light years from Earth and space observing equipment detected a sudden temperature change on its surface. 

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; for example, 100 billion neutrinos passing harmlessly though our eyes every second.

They also found that the neutron star's interior contains a superconductor, which affects how the neutron star cools. “This research helps us better understand stars, and the behaviour of matter at levels of density and heat that could never be duplicated and studied here on Earth,” said Heinke

Heinke is a co-author of the research published this month in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. .Heinke says that, because this neutron star was formed just 330 years ago, it offers researchers a great opportunity.

“We’ve got ringside seats to studying the life cycle of a neutron star, from its collapse to its present cooling-off state.”

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