Scientists Say: Neutron star | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Neutron star

This is the corpse of an old, dead star
Jan 22, 2018 — 6:30 am EST
neutron star
This is an artist’s drawing of what a neutron star might look like.
Dana Berry/NASA

Neutron star (noun, “NEW-tron star”)

This is the leftover corpse of a large star after it has exploded. When a very large star (one that’s four to eight times as big as our sun) dies, it explodes into a supernova. The massive blast shoots most of the mass from the star into space, making that star shine brightly for a brief time. A truly massive star that goes supernova will collapse inward to form a black hole. But what if the star isn’t quite massive enough for that? The center of the former star collapses inward from the force of its own gravity. Inside this super-dense core, the dead star lives on. Negatively charged particles called electrons and positively charged particles called protons fuse into neutral particles called neutrons. These neutrons are why this zombie star is called a neutron star.

Neutron stars are dense. Really, really dense. They are so dense that single teaspoonful of neutron star material would weigh a billion tons on Earth. That’s as much as 166 Great Pyramids of Giza!

In a sentence

When two neutron stars smack into each other, they produce gold, silver — and gravitational waves.

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Power Words

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black hole     A region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation (including light) can escape.

core     Something — usually round-shaped — in the center of an object. (in geology) Earth’s innermost layer. Or, a long, tube-like sample drilled down into ice, soil or rock. Cores allow scientists to examine layers of sediment, dissolved chemicals, rock and fossils to see how the environment at one location changed through hundreds to thousands of years or more.

electron     A negatively charged particle, usually found orbiting the outer regions of an atom; also, the carrier of electricity within solids.

force     Some outside influence that can change the motion of a body, hold bodies close to one another, or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.

gravity     The force that attracts anything with mass, or bulk, toward any other thing with mass. The more mass that something has, the greater its gravity.

mass     A number that shows how much an object resists speeding up and slowing down — basically a measure of how much matter that object is made from.

neutron     A subatomic particle carrying no electric charge that is one of the basic pieces of matter. Neutrons belong to the family of particles known as hadrons.

neutron star     The very dense corpse of what had once been a star with a mass four to eight times that of our sun. As the star died in a supernova explosion, its outer layers shot out into space. Its core then collapsed under its intense gravity, causing protons and electrons in its atoms to fuse into neutrons (hence the star’s name). Astronomers believe neutron stars form when large stars undergo a supernova but aren’t massive enough to form a black hole. A single teaspoonful of a neutron star, on Earth, would weigh a billion tons.

particle     A minute amount of something.

proton     A subatomic particle that is one of the basic building blocks of the atoms that make up matter. Protons belong to the family of particles known as hadrons.

star     The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Also a term for any sunlike star.

supernova     (plural: supernovae or supernovas) A massive star that suddenly increases greatly in brightness because of a catastrophic explosion that ejects most of its mass.

wave     A disturbance or variation that travels through space and matter in a regular, oscillating fashion.