Astronomers map a neutron star’s surface for the first time

Astronomers map a neutron star’s surface for the first time

by Alison Klesman, Astronomy

NASA’s NICER instrument reveals that neutron stars are not as simple as we thought.

Pulsars are the lighthouses of the universe. These tiny, compact objects are neutron stars — the remnants of once-massive stars — that spin rapidly, beaming radiation into space. Now, for the first time, astronomers have mapped the surface of a 16-mile-wide pulsar in exquisite detail. The result challenges astronomers’ textbook picture of a pulsar’s appearance and opens the door to learning more about these extreme objects.

From its perch on the exterior of the International Space Station, the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer, or NICER, looks for X-rays from extreme astronomical objects, such as pulsars. In a series of papers published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, researchers used NICER to observe the pulsar J0030+0451, or J0030 for short, which lies 1,100 light-years away in the constellation Pisces. Two teams — one led by researchers at the University of Amsterdam and the other led by the University of Maryland — watched the X-ray light from J0030 over time to map the pulsar’s surface and measure its mass. Both teams arrived at a picture that is not what they expected.

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