neutron star

Magnetars: Everything You Need to Know About the Universe’s Strongest Neutron Star

July 9, 2024 - Emily Newton

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The universe is a scary and mysterious place with more unknowns than found discoveries in its darkness. Neutron stars are some of the most intense objects in space, but one more compelling than most is called magnetars — a portmanteau of “magnet” and “star.” It is literally attractive, with some of the strongest forces in science. Discover everything you ever wanted to know about these scary beauties.

The History of Magnetars

In 1992, Robert Duncan and Christopher Thompson published an article entitled “Formation of Very Strongly Magnetized Neutron Stars: Implications for Gamma-Ray Bursts.” This paper sparked more research, leading to a mostly unified consensus in the scientific community that magnetars were a unique type of neutron star.

How do magnetars form? Neutron stars are the remnants of a supergiant star after a supernova causes its center to collapse. Sometimes, this reaction creates a pulsar or other type of neutron star. If the universe is lucky, it will create a magnetar.

However, magnetars may have been detected before 1992. In 1979, several probes in Venus’ atmosphere and one circling the Sun felt the brunt of several blasts of gamma radiation. This knowledge became more publicized after a 2003 article in “Scientific American.”

There are only 24 known magnetars in the McGill catalog. As of 2024, there are several awaiting confirmation. As space technologies advance, it will only reveal more magnetars in our universe.

Qualities of Magnetars

Neutron stars are categorized as such because of their size and density, alongside their regular releases of gamma rays and X-rays. These are the result of starquakes, which is exactly like an earthquake but on a star. 

Magnetars are not as dense as black holes, but neutron stars come in second place. They live for around 10,000 years before they lose their potency and fade away. This means many magnetars could have existed in the universe’s life, exceeding the millions, according to 2010 projects.

One teaspoon of the ingredients of a magnetar would equate to 10 million tons. Spread this over their average size of 1.4 solar masses, and you have an extremely dense celestial body. They aren’t even close to being the size of our solar system’s sun — some could fit within major U.S. cities.

How are they different from other neutron stars? As their name implies, their magnetic fields are unlike anything in existence, averaging around 109 to 1011 tesla. This causes them to rotate a lot more slowly compared to other neutron stars.

What Is the Difference Between Magnetars and Pulsars?

They both reside under the umbrella of neutron stars, but the main difference is what they emit. Pulsars emit radio waves and produce enormous amounts of light, whereas magnetars put all their eggs in the magnet basket. However, many consider magnetars to be a type of pulsar despite the differences. Both of these star types will never become black holes.

Quasars are another type of neutron star, and they differ from both of the aforementioned because they are even brighter. However, they often play host to the infamous celestial object people can’t get enough of — supermassive black holes. 

Research Today

Most of what experts have gleaned about magnetars has been from the last several decades. Not much new information has come out of the woodwork, except for sightings and additions to the catalog. However, some instances of magnetic activity spark some modern curiosity.

The European Space Agency felt something big in 2023 when radiation smacked its INTEGRAL satellite in the face. Astronomers originally thought it came from the collision of multiple neutron stars, given the intensity of the gamma rays. However, further investigation proved it was a magnetar. They knew this because this interaction would have produced a visible radio band — this didn’t happen.

This proves even though there are magnetars far away from Earth, the energetic jets they produce span the galaxy. The origin of this eruption is particularly interesting, but it comes from a place where countless other hot, fast-moving stars are located. This resulted in a paper being published in 2024

The writers explored how the magnetar giant flare was spotted in the M82 galaxy 12,000 light-years away, which is significant since only three others of this kind have been discovered nearby in the Milky Way. Its compositions of short gamma-ray bursts and other qualities make it an enticing specimen to study. Plus, it’s an achievement in the astronomy community to see something like this from a distance — feeling it near Earth is even more extraordinary.

Are Magnetars Dangerous?

Human-made magnets pale in comparison to a magnetar’s strength. The closest magnetar to Earth is named XTE J1810-197, and it is 8,000 or so light-years away. Fortunately, this neutron star would have to get a lot closer to the planet before it became an imminent threat. Another close magnetar is AXP 1E 1048-59, which is around 9,000 light-years away in the Carina constellation.

If a magnetar gets within 1,000 km of Earth, then it could wipe out humanity. No life-form is constructed in a way that could deal with those conditions. Its magnetism would pull all electrons away from every atom, leaving everything in its wake a confusing collection of ions. 

Many experts in scientific fields dub magnetars the scariest objects in the universe for this reason — they are objectively dead stars, yet they could rip the entire planet apart in a blink if they got close enough. Even though there are still a lot of researchers who don’t know about these mystical objects, humanity knows enough to take care.

Magnetic Madness

Magnetars are equally captivating as they are destructive, especially if they get too close to humanity. It’s hard to conceptualize space experts finding something else quite like magnetars, but the beauty of the universe is its infinite possibilities. 

Fortunately, any impacts from its magnetic field would happen so fast the planet would hardly notice — let’s just hope we can learn everything about them before that happens. 

Revolutionized is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commision. Learn more here.

Author

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology and industrial journalist and the Editor in Chief of Revolutionized. She manages the sites publishing schedule, SEO optimization and content strategy. Emily enjoys writing and researching articles about how technology is changing every industry. When she isn't working, Emily enjoys playing video games or curling up with a good book.

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