What makes neutron stars so special?
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Being outside of Earth’s atmosphere while also being able to look down on the planet is both a challenge and a unique benefit for astronauts conducting important and innovative experiments aboard the International Space Station.
NASA astrophysicist Michelle Thaller explains why one such project, known as NICER (Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer), is “one of the most amazing discoveries of the last year.”
Researchers used x-ray light data from NICER to map the surface of neutrons (the spinning remnants of dead stars 10-50 times the mass of our sun). Thaller explains how this data can be used to create a clock more accurate than any on Earth, as well as a GPS device that can be used anywhere in the galaxy.
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars. She is Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA. She went to college at Harvard University, completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. then started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Spitzer Space Telescope. After a hugely successful mission, she moved on to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in the Washington D.C. area. In her off-hours often puts on about 30lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. For more information, visit
MICHELLE THALLER: I’m an astrophysicist and one of the things that I have been really impressed with with the International Space Station, some of the most amazing and innovating and strange experiments today are actually located on the space station. It’s, of course, a wonderful platform to look at a lot of stuff because you’re up above the atmosphere, you’re up in space and you can both look out into space and you can also look back down at our home planet the Earth.
One of the things that makes it a challenge to actually use it as, for example, an observatory with telescopes is that the space station swings around a lot so you have to be able to actually stabilize the image and what you’re looking at, especially if you’re working on the space station. But to me certainly one of the most amazing discoveries of the last year has come out of the space station experiment called NICER, that’s the acronym. It stands for the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer so NICER. And NICER it’s actually a camera that looks at x-ray light. So, this is very, very high energy light and luckily for us this light does not get through the atmosphere. There are x-rays coming from space all the time and they would be very harmful to us but they’re absorbed by the air in the Earth’s atmosphere. Of course that means if you want to study x-rays coming from space you need to get up above the atmosphere and the space station is. Now, NICER was specifically designed to look at a very interesting type of dead star called a neutron star. And a neutron star is the remnants when a very massive star, a star that might have been 10, 20, 50 times the mass of the sun violently dies and explodes. And incredibly the core of the star is usually still intact after that because the core became so compressed in that explosion that it holds together as a giant ball of atoms basically. Neutron stars are only about ten miles across. They have the density of one big atomic nucleus and that means that if you had a teaspoon full of this material, this neutronium, that teaspoonful would have about as much mass as Mount Everest. So, a ten mile ball every little bit of it is that dense and not only that these things spin hundreds of times a second. They are wonderful. They are real monsters. The gravity around them is so intense, it’s not a black hole but it’s sort of natures next best thing. The gravity is so intense that light is actually bent around these objects. And one of the most amazing things that we did with NICER recently is we used data coming in from x-rays from these hot dense little balls to actually map the surface and see where parts were hotter than others. And that was very challenging to do because when you actually took an image, and this wasn’t a simple image it was constructed out of many…
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