Monday, April 16, 2007

Neutron stars hotter than expected

It's always nice to see one's field of study get applied to real problems in other science fields, and even if it's more math than computer science, a new theoretical thermometer has made it possible for astrophysicians to come closer to understanding why superbursts happens on neutron stars.

ScienceDaily has the story.

Neutron Star Surfaces Hotter Than Expected, Helps Explain Superburst Frequency

A new theoretical thermometer built from heavy-duty mathematics and computer code suggests that the surfaces of certain neutron stars run significantly hotter than previously expected. Hot enough, in fact, to at least partially answer an open question in astrophysics -- how to explain the observed frequency of ultra-violent explosions known as superbursts that sometimes ignite on such stars' surfaces?

"This is the first model that goes into some reasonable detail about the nuclear physics that occur in the crusts of accreting neutron stars," said Hendrik Schatz, NSCL professor and co-author of a paper that will be published in The Astrophysical Journal in June.

I wasn't aware that the subject of superbursts was such a mystery, but aparently it is.

Though hardly subtle astrophysical phenomena, superbursts remain shrouded in some mystery, largely because only twelve of the extreme events have ever been observed. This mystery is what attracted the attention of researchers participating in the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics, or JINA, project.

I like the first sentence of that paragraph.

Interestingly enough the article doesn't actually state how hot the astrophysicians think the neutran stars are, but it does explain that while this new knowledge helps explaining superbursts, it's not sufficient to explain the frequency of them.

At least in part, this newly discovered heat helps to reconcile the work of theorists and experimentalists who study neutron stars. Prior to Schatz and Brown's research, theoretical astrophysicists predicted that superbursts should occur every ten years or so. Now, according the new calculation, theorists can explain why the gigantic explosions should occur every three or four years.

But more work remains to be done. According to observational data, superbursts occur roughly annually -- and scientists still aren't altogether sure why.

Maybe the stars are even hotter?

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