Apollo 11 was the pinnacle of NASA’s human spaceflight operations in the 1960s, but more than that, it was the realization of a dream thousands of years in the making. Even before recorded history, people looked to the sky and imagined what it would be like to touch the moon and see the stars. Apollo 11 (seen from the inside in the 2019 documentary Apollo 11) proved that we were able to see into the cosmos, identify destinations, and then actually go there to walk on alien surfaces.
Our potential exploration targets have always been limited to rocky planets and moons, because the gaseous surfaces of stars and gas giants have constantly kept them out of reach. Now the prospect of walking on a star’s surface just got a little easier, thanks to a recent discovery published in the journal Science.
Scientists from the University of Padua and colleagues used data from NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer satellite. The IXPE is a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency that looks at the polarization – the direction in which the light waves wobble – of X-ray light in the cosmos. Researchers used the instrument to observe a highly magnetized dead star, known as a magnetar, located 13,000 light-years from Earth.
When stars many times more massive than the sun die, they explode in a brilliant supernova outburst of rapidly expanding gas. If the star is within the correct size range, what remains after the explosion is a piece, a highly compacted stellar remnant known as a neutron star. These super-dense ghost stars already have incredibly powerful magnetic fields, but some are even stronger than others and we call them magnetars. The fields around some magnetars have been measured to be 1,000 times the strength of a typical neutron star and a trillion times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field.
It’s unclear why magnetars have such aggressively powerful magnetic fields, but it’s likely the result of the strange machinations going on inside the star. Matter is so densely compressed and under such tremendous forces and pressure that it could become the interior of the star a superconducting liquidturning the entire star into a dynamo that generates the magnetic field.
Magnetars emit light in the X-ray portion of the spectrum and can be observed with X-ray telescopes. Researchers looked at the IXPE data from observations of magnetar 4U 0142+61, located in the constellation Cassiopeia, in hopes of determining the dead star’s surface features. Looking at the measurements, scientists found a lower amount of polarized light than they expected if the light passed through an atmosphere. If an atmosphere had been present, it should have filtered out more light, but that turned out not to be the case. Instead, they found that when the light had higher energies, the polarization angle shifted 90 degrees compared to lower energies. Those findings are consistent with what we would expect if the star actually had a solid crust instead of a gaseous atmosphere.
Researchers suggest that the star’s powerful magnetic field turns the star’s gas into a solid, just as low temperatures cause crystallization in liquid water, turning it into ice. Instead of an amorphous cloud of hot gas, it becomes a liquid or solid in a process known as magnetic condensation. The result is a surface crust made of ions bonded together in a crystalline lattice, all stretched in the direction of the magnetic field.
Now that we know there are stars solid enough to walk on, it’s hard not to imagine what that could be like. A person – or non-human alien intelligence – could theoretically step onto the surface of a neutron star, but the first step would be your last. Before you even got close to the star, once you reached a distance of about a thousand miles, the magnetic field would be so powerful that it would strip electrons from your body and reduce you to a rapidly disappearing cloud of atoms.
If you could survive the field and actually make it to the surface, you could never leave. On neutron stars, matter is so densely packed that a piece the size of a sugar cube would weigh about the same as a typical mountain on Earth. According to the CDC, the average person in the United States weighs 185 pounds. Those are, of course, Earth pounds. On a magnetar, the same person would weigh nearly 26 trillion pounds. There may not be enough rocket fuel in the solar system to reach escape velocity from the star’s surface, let alone materials or bodies strong enough to withstand the crush.
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