This illustration compares the size of a neutron star to Manhattan. The crushed core of a star that has exploded as a supernova, a neutron star packs more mass than the sun into a sphere just 10 to 15 miles wide. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
A neutron star is the closest thing to a black hole that astronomers can observe directly, crushing half a million times more mass than Earth into a sphere no larger than a city.
In October 2010, a neutron star near the center of our galaxy erupted with hundreds of X-ray bursts that were powered by a barrage of thermonuclear explosions on the star’s surface. NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) captured the month-long fusillade in extreme detail. Using this data, an international team of astronomers has been able to bridge a long-standing gap between theory and observation.
“In a single month from this unique system, we have identified behavior not seen in observations of nearly 100 bursting neutron stars during the past 30 years,” said Manuel Linares, a postdoctoral researcher at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He led a study of the RXTE data that will be published in the March 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.