Saturday science subject: Magnetars

— 9:33 PM on September 22, 2007

Study of a neutron star in the constellation Sagittarius has revealed new insight on the nature of magnetars, according to a report by the New Scientist. Neutron stars are the collapsed remains of massive stars, composed primarily of neutrons, which makes them so dense that "a teaspoonful of their material would weigh 500 million [metric] tonnes." A magnetar, meanwhile, is a type of neutron star whose magnetic field is so powerful that it radiates electromagnetic energy, slowing the star's rotation.

The researchers used the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton spacecraft to measure X-rays from a neutron star called XTE J1810-197, which lies about 10,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Sagittarius.

It was discovered in 2003 when it had a major outburst, suddenly becoming more than 100 times brighter than normal in X-rays. The event was similar to magnetic starquakes seen on other candidate magnetars (see Starquake explosion rips neutron star open).

The idea is that the crust of the neutron star buckles and cracks due to the tremendous magnetic forces exerted by the star's own magnetic field. Watch an animation of a magnetar outburst.

The New Scientist says new observations of XTE J1810-197 have confirmed that the star has a magnetic field 600 trillion times that of the Earth. Feryal Ozel of the University of Arizona told the New Scientist, "It's the first independent confirmation that a magnetar is truly a magnetar." According to Ozel, "These are the most magnetic objects in the universe, by orders of magnitude."

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