One of the possible endpoints of stellar
evolution. A neutron star, with a mass of 1.4 to 3 solar masses, forms
from the collapsing core of a massive star immediately following the star's
exhaustion of its fusion energy reserves.
With the outflow of radiation from the stellar core suddenly switched off,
the core can no longer support the overlying layers against the inward force
of gravity. The rapidly mounting pressure
of the infalling layers squeezes the electrons
and protons of the core together to create
neutrons and neutrinos.
The neutrinos immediately escape into space but the neutrons crowd closer
and closer together until they reach the density of an atomic nucleus.
At this stage, if the compressed stellar core is less than the Oppenheimer-Volkoff
limit of about 3 solar masses, the neutrons are able to resist further
collapse. Otherwise, a black hole forms.
The star's collapsing middle layers rebound against the newly-formed solid
neutron core. This generates a shock wave
which heats and blows off the surface layers as a Type II supernova
explosion. Left behind is a rapidly spinning neutron star which has a strong
magnetic field with poles that are usually aligned with the pole's of the
star's rotation. Two oppositely directed beams of radio
waves escape from the poles and sweep around like a lighthouse beam,
producing a series of regular radio blips that can be detected from Earth.
The result is a pulsar.
A neutron star is typically only about 20 km (12.5 miles) across, yet within
this small region may be over 2 solar masses of material. The result is
a gravitational field at the surface of a neutron star about 70 billion
times stronger than that on Earth. Neutron stars have a density of about
1014 g/cm3, or roughly a million times that of white
dwarfs, so that a sugar-cube-sized sample of neutron star would outweigh
the human race. Strangely, the higher the mass of a neutron star, the smaller
its radius (gravity pulling the contents in ever more tightly).
In structure, a neutron star more closely resembles a solid, miniature planet
than it does an ordinary star. Its core consists mainly of densely-packed
neutrons, with a sprinkling of protons and an equal number of electrons,
in a liquid-like state known as neutronium.
Surrounding this is a mantle topped by a crust, perhaps 1 km thick, consisting
of a stiff lattice of nuclei of the same elements as found on Earth through
which flows a sea of electrons. The highest possible "mountains" (surface
irregularities) rise to a height of about 5 millimeters (0.2 inch), while
electrons and heavy nuclei evaporate in the surface temperature of 8,000°C
to produce an "atmosphere" maybe a few micrometers thick. As a neutron star
cools and shrinks, strains develop in the crust so that it buckles, causing
starquakes. Such events are marked by
glitches in the otherwise remarkably steady periods of pulsars.
Life either on or in the vicinity of neutron stars may seem extremely unlikely.
However, planets have been found around pulsars (see pulsar
planets) and the possibility of life
on a neutron star has been considered by Frank Drake
and explored in fictional form by Robert L. Forward.
• TYPES OF STARS