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Twinkle, Twinkle, Neutron Star

17 Jun 2009, 03:09 UTC
Twinkle, Twinkle, Neutron Star
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Neutron stars are mysterious beasts. Sure, astrophysicists know they're the result of a massive star compressing during a supernova and collapsing in on itself. And they know it retains most of its angular momentum in the process, and has an incredibly high surface gravity. But they don't know what exactly the surface of a neutron star is made of, although it's clear that iron plays a role -- our instruments have detected the telltale spectral signature of iron in emissions from these objects. Nor is it clear whether the iron is in gaseous form, thereby forming a sort of "atmosphere," or whether it forms an ultra-hard solid crust.A couple of weeks ago, a paper appeared on the arXiv with an intriguing means of telling the difference. Two Spanish scientists at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid conclude that if the iron in a neutron star is solid, it will form a rare and unusual crystal that is perfectly smooth and would envelop the entire star. And they've devised a method to test this by studying the surface of neutron stars using x-ray crystallography. The idea is to look for binary neutron star systems: one "dead," with an iron crust, the other ...

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