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Let's Simulate Neutron Stars

What is a Neutron Star?

A neutron star is a star formed when stars 4-8 times larger than the sun explode into supernovas. When these stars explode they leave behind their cores which start to collapse the material it just exploded back together. The material begins to press itself so tightly together that it forms what we know as a neutron star. We call it a neutron star because the protons and electrons in the exploded matter press against each so intensely that they form neutrons.

Neutron stars generally have a diameter of 20km. However, they are so dense that their gravitational pull is 2 billion times greater than Earth. A section of them about 5-6 inches long can weigh a billion tons. The makeup of their core is unknown, but there are many theories on what lies inside them. Their pull is strong enough to create gravitational lensing. Gravitational lensing bends radiation, and allows you to visually see the backside of a star.

Neutron stars also have a very fast rotation speed. It can spin several times a second. Sometimes as fast as 43,000 times a minute. Their spinning speed is controlled by their angular momentum as they compress and shrink.

Most neutron stars are considered pulsars. Pulsars are neutron stars that have pulses of radiation that take place over a few milliseconds or seconds. They were first discovered in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

They also have very strong magnetic fields, and emit particles of matter from their poles. These particles form beams of light. Their magnetic fields are not aligned with their axis, this creates a unique effect when they are viewed. The particles that are emitted from their axis, get swept up into their magnetic fields, and spin around them. Pulsars are also thought of as lighthouses. In the sense that when they rotate they emit a beam of light that sweeps around the sky.

As of 2010, 1,800 pulsars have been found. Some of them have their own solar systems.

Magnetic fields play a huge part in defining neutron stars from other stars in the universe.

The magnetic field strength of the stars affects its surface tension. On the surface of a neutron star the strength of this can range from 104-1001 teslas. Teslas are a measurement for magnetic induction. These tesla levels have not been observed anywhere else in the universe. Fun fact,T fields have been used in laboratory settings to levitate living frogs.

The variations in magnetic field strength that neutron stars give off allow them to have a unique spectra, and create the pulses that give pulsars their names.

Neutron stars with the strongest magnetic fields are called magnetars. The ranges of their fields are between 108-1001 teslas. Magnetars are also called soft gamma repeaters and anomalous X-ray pulsars. They emit X-rays and gamma rays when their magnetic fields shift, and their outer crust cracks. This is also known as a starquake. These starquakes cause fireballs to rise out of the star, and then become trapped in the magnetic field. The field is also so strong that it will polarize the vacuum of space.

No one is sure where these magnetic fields come from. It is hypothesized that these stars contain a magnetic flux over their surface area. This flux remains the same as the star shrinks, and then increases the magnetic field in the process. However, there are many lacking details to this theory.

Gamma Rays

Let’s learn more about gamma rays. Not the Incredible Hulk kind.

In astronomy, gamma ray bursts(GRBs), and huge explosions full of energy that travel through the universe. They are the brightest electromagnetic events in the universe, and can last from a few seconds to several hours. After the initial explosion, different types of radiation are emitted until it completely fades away. This can be made up of X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, microwave and radio waves.

Binary neutron stars are thought to emit short bursts of GRBs. These are thought to happen when the crust of the star shatters, and the edges of the pieces continue to collide. Most of the gamma rays released by a neutron star will be more than our sun will release over its entire lifetime.

There is one scary part of GRBs, if a neutron star was close enough to Earth, and released a burst of gamma rays our way, it could result in a mass extinction event. However, lucky for us, all large GRBs have been observed outside the milky way.

GRBs were first detected in 1967 by the vela satellites. These satellites were first designed to detect nuclear weapon tests going on, on the surface of the Earth. These gamma ray bursts confused scientists and the military. This confusion started the creation of many hypothetical models of where these gamma rays were coming from. However, it wasn’t confirmed till 1997 that neutron stars were emitting these signatures.

Gamma rays are also thought to be released when a neutron star collides with a blackhole. These merging events are thought to release bursts lasting less than a few seconds.Depending on how fast the blackhole swallows the star.

When neutron stars collide, they also release short GRBs as well.

Now there are two other types of gamma ray bursts that exist that are not closely linked to neutron stars. But I think they are worth discussing.

Long gamma-ray bursts, and GRBs that last longer than two seconds. These are the most observed gamma ray events, as they are the easiest to detect. They have the brightest “afterglows”, or radiation after their main event. They are mostly linked to galaxies with rapid star formation, and collapsing supernovas.

Ultra long gamma ray bursts are GRBs that last longer than 10,000 seconds. They are thought to be caused by supermassive stars collapsing, tidal disruption events, or newly born magnetars. Only a small number of them have ever been detected.

Rotation and Spin

Due to their angular momentum in their formation process. The more their core shrinks the faster their spin becomes. Their spin can be likened to the way figure skaters spin. When they hold out their arms they spin slower. When they pull their arms in, they speed up.

Neutron stars are thought to be powered by their rotational speeds. The brightness or “luminosity” of the stars is correlated to their rotational speeds. Based on the type of star, the luminosity can be directly related to their spin down or up speeds. It is also thought that the luminosity can be linked to how active the magnetic fields of the star are.

There are two changes of rotational speed for a neutron star. Spin up and spin down. Let’s talk about each.But fits let’s mention something called a P-P dot diagram.

These diagrams can be used to map the rotational speed of a star of a period of time The first “P” stands for the periodic time of the rotational period of the star. The second “P” stands for the periodic time over a selected unit of time. These diagrams can be used to map rotation-powered pulsars, X-ray pulsars, high-energy emission pulsars, binary pulsars, and many more.

The P and P formula allow the minimum value of the magnetic fields of the stars to be calculated. They can also be used to calculate the age of pulsars, the spin down “brightness” of the star, and the loss of rotational energy the star might have.

Spin Down

The magnetic field of a neutron star is directly linked to the rotation of it. When a neutron star starts to slow, the magnetic field of the star also decreases. When three stars become very old, it may take them a few seconds to complete one full rotation. This continues until the star ages so much it completely stops turning. This is called a spin down.

When the spin down is complete, the neutron star can no longer be detected.

Spin Up

Neutron stars can increase their rotational speed over time. This process is known as a spin up. When the star absorbs surrounding matter from other stars, this increases its rotation rate, and reshapes the star. When this process occurs, it can speed up the star’s rotational speed over a hundred times a second.

The faster rotating neutron star known in the universe is PSR J1748-2446ad. It rotates 716 - 1122 times per second.


Previously, we mentioned that starquakes are events that happen on a neutron star’s surface. However, they also cause something called glitches to happen.

Glitches are sudden increases in a star’s rotational speed. They are thought to happen directly after a starquake, or by vortices from the superfluid in the star’s core.

There are also something called anti-glitches that occur in stars. These are sudden and random decreases in a star’s rotational speed.

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