Those Quirky Quark Stars!

by Nathan Natas 4 Replies latest jw friends

  • Nathan Natas
    Nathan Natas


    Cosmic X-rays reveal evidence for new form of matter

    NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has found two stars – one too small, one too cold — that reveal cracks in our understanding of the structure of matter. These discoveries open a new window on nuclear physics, offering a link between the vast cosmos and its tiniest constituents.

    Chandra’s observations of RXJ1856.5-3754 and 3C58 suggest that the matter in these stars is even denser than nuclear matter found on Earth. This raises the possibility these stars are composed of pure quarks or contain crystals of sub-nuclear particles that normally have only a fleeting existence following high-energy collisions.

    By combining Chandra and Hubble Space Telescope data, astronomers found that RXJ 1856 radiates like a solid body with a temperature of 1.2 million degrees Fahrenheit (700,000 degrees Celsius) and has a diameter of about 7 miles (11.3 kilometers). This size is too small to reconcile with standard models for neutron stars — until now the most extreme form of matter known.

    “Taken at face value, the combined observational evidence points to a star composed not of neutrons, but of quarks in a form know as strange quark matter,” said Jeremy Drake of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass., and lead author of a paper on RXJ1856 to appear in June 20, 2002 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. “Quarks, thought to be the fundamental constituents of nuclear particles, have never been seen outside a nucleus in Earth-bound laboratories.”

    Observations by Chandra of 3C58 also yielded startling results. A team composed of Patrick Slane and Steven Murray, also of CfA, and David Helfand of Columbia University, New York, failed to detect the expected X-radiation from the hot surface of 3C58, a neutron star believed to have been created in an explosion witnessed by Chinese and Japanese astronomers in 1181 AD. The team concluded that the star has a temperature of less than one million degrees Celsius, which is far below the predicted value.

    “Our observations of 3C58 offer the first compelling test of models for how neutron stars cool and, the standard theory fails,” said Helfand. “It appears that neutron stars aren't pure neutrons after all — new forms of matter are required.”

    A teaspoonful of neutron star material weighs a billion tons, as much as all the cars, trucks and buses on Earth. Its extraordinary density is equivalent to that of the nucleus of an atom with all of the typical space between the atoms and their nuclei removed. An atom’s nucleus is composed of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons, particles so small that 100 billion trillion of them would fit on the head of a pin.

    Protons and neutrons are composed of even smaller particles called quarks, the basic building blocks of matter. Enormous atom smashers are designed to probe the forces between quarks and the structure of the nucleus by smashing high-energy beams of nuclei into each other and observing the violent aftermath for a fraction of a second.

    Drake cautioned that the observations of RXJ1856 could be interpreted as a more normal neutron star with a hot spot. Such a model is under consideration by Fred Walter of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, one of the discoverers of RXJ1856, which was originally found in 1996 by the German Roetgen satellite. However, the hot spot model requires a very special orientation of the star with respect to the Earth to explain the absence of pulsations, which would be expected from the hot spot. The probability of such an orientation is quite small.

    “Regardless of how these mysteries are resolved, these precise observations are highly significant,” said Michael Turner of the University of Chicago. “They demonstrate our ability to use the universe as a laboratory where we can study some of the most fundamental questions in physics.”

    NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program, and TRW, Inc., Redondo Beach, Calif., is the prime contractor. The Smithsonian's Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

    Images and additional information about this result are available at:


  • Satanus

    Freaky, man. Thanks for bringing this up.

  • LucidSky

    Thanks. Astronomy was always one of my interests.

  • Xander

    It's been said before by people better qualified than I....

    Hubble was an INCREDIBLE investment. Could you imagine what we could discover if we could actually put together an observatory rivalling the largest on earth ON THE MOON?

    Or, better, decently fund the space programs?

    Xander F
    (Unseen Apostate Directorate of North America - Ohio order)

    A fanatic is one who, upon losing sight of his goals, redoubles his efforts.
    --George Santayana

  • freeman

    The wonderful thing about space science, in all its many disciplines, is that it continually demonstrates our level of ignorance about the universe around us. If only we would continually push the envelope in seeking understanding with the same level of commitment as we seem to so easily accommodate for our destructive pursuits.

    Some year’s back, I was involved with Hubble, (yes I’m a bit prejudice here), but nonetheless I saw first hand how with the stroke of a congressional pen, many good scientists, (a few personal friends of mine), were left out in the cold as funds were siphoned away from NASA and spent on various domestic programs and the military.

    The real kicker for me is that I, and many others along with me, were actually forced to testify under oath about NASA’s problems. Some of our testimony was likely used as justification by congress to reallocate funds to other programs. In my own case, NASA’s Inspector General told me that my testimony would be included in the official Congressional Record. Nothing like cutting your own throat!

    Sorry for getting on my soapbox. That was some years ago, and I’m still pissed off! I guess I still have a few issues unresolved : ) Anyway, IMHO Hubble was a wonderful investment back then that is still paying dividends even today. And now with the new instruments and upgrades that were recently added, who knows what we will find out there next? Great post BTW.


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