ESA’s XMM-Newton and the JAXA/NASA Suzaku X-ray observatories have been used to see the distortion of space-time around three neutron stars. These objects contain the densest observable matter in the Universe.
Neutron stars cram more than a Sun’s worth of material into a city-sized sphere. This means that a cup of neutron-star stuff would outweigh Mount Everest. Astronomers use these collapsed stars as natural laboratories to study how tightly matter can be compacted under the most extreme pressure that nature can offer.
"This is fundamental physics," says Sudip Bhattacharyya at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, USA. "There could be exotic kinds of particles or states of matter, such as quark matter, in the centres of neutron stars, but it’s impossible to create them in the lab. The only way to find out is to understand neutron stars."
To address this mystery, scientists must accurately and precisely measure the diameters and masses of neutron stars. In two concurrent studies, one with XMM-Newton and the other with Suzaku, astronomers have taken a big step forward.
Using XMM-Newton, Bhattacharyya and his colleague Tod Strohmayer observed a binary system known as Serpens X-1, which contains a neutron star and a stellar companion. They studied a spectral line from hot iron atoms that are whirling around in a disc, just beyond the neutron star’s surface, at 40% the speed of light.
Previous X-ray observatories detected iron lines around neutron stars, but they lacked the sensitivity to measure the shapes of the lines in detail.
Thanks to XMM-Newton’s large mirrors, Bhattacharyya and Strohmayer found that the iron line is broadened asymmetrically by the gas’s extreme velocity, which smears and distorts the line because of the Doppler effect and beaming effects predicted by Einstein’s special theory of relativity. The warping of space-time by the neutron star’s powerful gravity, an effect of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, shifts the neutron star’s iron line to longer wavelengths.
"We have seen these asymmetric lines from many black holes, but this is the first confirmation that neutron stars can produce them as well. It shows that the way neutron stars accrete matter is not very different from that of black holes, and gives us a new tool to probe Einstein’s theory," says Strohmayer.
A group led by Edward Cackett and Jon Miller of the University of Michigan, which includes Bhattacharyya and Strohmayer, used Suzaku’s superb spectral capabilities to survey three neutron-star binaries: Serpens X-1, GX 349+2, and 4U 1820-30. This team observed a nearly identical iron line in Serpens X-1, confirming the XMM-Newton result. It detected similarly skewed iron lines in the other two systems as well.
"We’re seeing the gas whipping around just outside the neutron star’s surface," says Cackett. "And since the inner part of the disc obviously cannot orbit any closer than the neutron star’s surface, these measurements give us a maximum size of the neutron star’s diameter. The neutron stars can be no larger than 29 to 33 km across, results that agree with other types of measurements."
"Now that we have seen this relativistic iron line around three neutron stars, we have established a new technique," adds Miller. "It’s very difficult to measure the mass and diameter of a neutron star, so we need several techniques to work together to achieve that goal."
Knowing a neutron star’s size and mass allows physicists to describe the 'stiffness' (or equation of state) of matter packed inside these incredibly dense objects. Besides using these iron lines to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity, astronomers can use them to probe conditions in the inner part of a neutron star’s accretion disc.
Norbert Schartel | alfa
APEX takes a glimpse into the heart of darkness
25.05.2018 | Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie
First chip-scale broadband optical system that can sense molecules in the mid-IR
24.05.2018 | Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science
The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.
Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...
A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.
The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...
At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.
At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...
There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?
At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...
So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics
Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...
25.05.2018 | Event News
02.05.2018 | Event News
13.04.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering
25.05.2018 | Life Sciences