In this series, we explore the weird and wonderful world of astronomy jargon! Hold on to your magnet hats, because today’s topic is magnetars!
Let’s start with neutron stars. These are the residual nuclei of giant stars that consist almost exclusively of pure neutrons. But there are also some electrons and protons swimming around, and they will be equally important. Neutron stars are incredibly strange: they have many times the mass of the Sun, crammed together in a volume the size of Manhattan. That’s a lot of density. Neutron stars could rightly be called the largest atomic nuclei in the universe.
Now back to those electrons and protons. Neutrons themselves are electrically neutral and don’t really do much in this story other than supply most of the neutron star’s mass. But electrons and protons are electrically charged, which is important when I tell you that some neutron stars spin insanely fast. We’re talking up to ten thousand rpm – that’s faster than your kitchen mixer (please do not make smoothies with a rotating neutron star).
Those electrical charges swirling around at this speed can create some really enormous magnetic fields. And now we come to the magnetars: the name we give to super-rotating, super-magnetized neutron stars. Magnetars have by far the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. The field of a typical magnetar is over a trillion (yes, with a “t”) stronger than that of the earth. And sometimes these even reach into the quadrillion.
That’s many millions.
This magnetic field is strong enough to break you – literally rupture your molecular bonds – from a distance of about a thousand miles.
It’s good that they are rare. Magnets make up only a small percentage of all neutron stars. It is believed that only newborn neutron stars can maintain the necessary spins to propel them. So far, astronomers have cataloged only 24 of these beasts.