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Bizarre Star Could Host a Neutron Star In Its Core 73

ananyo writes "Astronomers say that they have discovered the first example of a long-sought cosmic oddity: a bloated, dying star with a surprise in its core — an ultradense neutron star. Such entities, known as Thorne-Zytkow objects, are theoretically possible but would alter scientists' understanding of how stars can be powered. Since Thorne-Zytkow objects were first proposed in 1975, researchers have occasionally offered up candidates, but none have been confirmed."
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Bizarre Star Could Host a Neutron Star In Its Core

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  • by Trepidity ( 597 ) <> on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @09:02PM (#45903373)

    "Stars with degenerate neutron cores" [], Astrophysical Journal, 1977.

    Courtesy of the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System [], an open-access digital library that other fields could do well to emulate...

  • by Michael Woodhams ( 112247 ) on Wednesday January 08, 2014 @09:04PM (#45903387) Journal

    While I've not heard of a Thorne-Zytkow object before, I can apply my general astronomical knowledge to explain a bit further.

    The idea of an internally inert condensed object at the centre of a star is very standard: red giants have a white dwarf at their core, indeed this is how white dwarfs are formed. The weirdness is in having a neutron star instead of a white dwarf core.

    The condensed object is supported by degeneracy pressure (electron degeneracy pressure for a white dwarf, neutron degeneracy pressure for a neutron star.) (Degeneracy pressure is a quantum mechanical effect. It is only appreciable at very high densities, and is not dependent on temperature.) The surface of the condensed object will be very hot, because nuclear burning is going on nearby and it is insulated from the coldness of space by the envelope of the star (i.e. the bits of star which are not the condensed object.) The density of gas just above the surface of the core will also be large, due to the high surface gravity plus the pressure of the weight of the envelope.

    High temperature and high density leads to nuclear burning (combining light nuclei into heavier ones, releasing energy.) The nuclear reactions are generally very strongly dependent on temperature (e.g. one important reaction has a rate approximately proportional to temperature to the 17th power) so the burning happens in a thin layer. The 'burnt' material settles on the core, slowly enlarging it.

    The gravitational attraction of the core pulling the envelope inward is largely balanced by gas pressure and radiation pressure. While stars like our sun are dominated by gas pressure, in this case radiation pressure will dominate. As the radiation escapes outward, mass is able to migrate inwards, to the thin burning layer. An equilibrium is reached between the burning/energy production rate and the mass inflow rate.

    Because they are dominated by radiation pressure, it doesn't take much extra push for something at the surface of a red giant star to escape, so these stars have strong stellar winds and high mass loss rate to winds. So the envelope gets eaten from the bottom by burning and deposition onto the growing white dwarf, and from the top by mass loss. Eventually there is no envelope left and a bare white dwarf is exposed. (The final transition is quite spectacular and is called a planetary nebula.)

    Heat transport in red giants is dominated by convection rather than radiation. (I think this is a general property of being dominated by radiation pressure, but I may be mistaken.) This allows material which has been close to the burning zone to mix through the star. Various secondary nuclear reactions occur there (e.g. s-process nucleosynthesis), so the products of this are mixed to the surface, where they can be observed in the spectrum. (I'm not sure whether partly-burnt material from the main burning shell can get mixed out or not.)

    Evidently (according to the article) in Thorne-Zytkow objects these reactions are different from in a normal red giant and so mix different products to the surface. The star of the article has a spectrum rich in predicted reaction products of a Thorne-Zytkow object.

    While white dwarf naturally grow inside stars, the process that generates neutron stars (supernovae) removes the stellar envelope, so finding a neutron star inside an envelope requires some rare post-supernova event to supply the neutron star with stellar-mass quantities of fresh gas.

"Well, it don't make the sun shine, but at least it don't deepen the shit." -- Straiter Empy, in _Riddley_Walker_ by Russell Hoban