Apollo 11 was the culmination of NASA’s manned space operations in the 1960s, but more importantly, it was the fulfillment of a millennia-old dream. Since before recorded history, people have looked up at the sky and imagined what it would be like to touch the moon and see the stars. Apollo 11 (seen from the inside in the 2019 documentary Apollo 11) proved that we can look into the universe, identify destinations, and then go there to walk on exotic surfaces.
Our potential exploration targets have long been limited to rocky planets and moons, as the gaseous surfaces of stars and gas giants have kept them out of our reach. Now, the prospect of walking on the surface of a star just got a little easier, thanks to a recent discovery Published in the journal Sciences.
Scientists from the University of Padua and their colleagues used data from NASA’s X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer satellite. IXPE is a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency that is looking at the polarization – the direction of light waves – of X-ray light in the universe. The researchers used the instrument to observe a dead, highly magnetized star, known as a magnetar, 13,000 light-years from Earth.
When stars many times more massive than the Sun die, they explode in a bright supernova explosion of rapidly expanding gas. If the star is in the right size range, a piece of it will be left behind after the explosion, an extremely compact stellar remnant known as a neutron star. These super dense ghost stars do indeed have incredibly strong magnetic fields, but some are stronger than others and we call them magnets. The fields around some magnetars have been measured to be a thousand times as strong as a typical neutron star and a trillion times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field.
It’s unclear why magnetars have such strong magnetic fields, but it’s likely the result of strange machinations going on inside the star. Matter is pressed closely together and is subjected to enormous forces and pressures that may reach into the core of the star superconducting liquidwhich turns the entire star into a dynamo that generates the magnetic field.
Magnets emit light in the X-ray part of the spectrum and can be observed with X-ray telescopes. The researchers looked at IXPE data from observations of magnetar 4U 0142+61, located in the constellation Cassiopeia, in hopes of identifying surface features of the dead star. Looking at the measurements, the scientists found less polarized light than they would have expected if the light had passed through the atmosphere. If the atmosphere was present, it should have blocked more light, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, they found that when the light is at higher energies, the polarization angle shifts by 90 degrees compared to that at lower energies. These results are consistent with what we would expect to find if the star had a really solid crust rather than a gaseous atmosphere.
The researchers suggest that the strong magnetic field turns the star’s gas into a solid, in the same way that low temperatures cause liquid water to crystallize into ice. Instead of an amorphous cloud of hot gas, it becomes liquid or solid in a process known as magnetic condensation. The result is a surface shell of ions bound together in an extended crystal lattice all in the direction of the magnetic field.
Now that we know there are stars that are solid enough to walk on, it’s hard not to imagine what that might be like. A person – or a non-human alien intelligence – could step on the surface of a neutron star, in theory, but the first step would be the last. Before you get close to the star, once you get within about a thousand kilometers, the magnetic field will be so strong that it will strip electrons from your body and turn you into a rapidly dissipating puff of atoms.
If you can survive the field and actually make it to the surface, you will never be able to leave. On neutron stars, matter is so densely packed that a sugar cube-sized piece weighs about as much as a typical mountain on Earth. According to the CDC, the average person in the United States weighs 185 lbs. Of course, this is a pound of land. On a magnetar, the same person would weigh about 26 trillion pounds. There may not be enough rocket fuel in the solar system to achieve escape velocity from the star’s surface, let alone materials or objects strong enough to withstand implosion.
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