Neutron stars are right up there with black holes as some of the most mysterious objects in space, and have even convinced us (more than once) that we were being messaged by aliens and essentially drove the SETI institute insane. No wonder NASA wants to get closer than ever.
Extreme to the extreme, neutron stars are the corpses of massive stars that collapsed into incredibly dense spheres after exhausting their nuclear fuel. Gravity that is strong enough to smash an unbelievable amount of matter means these star specters are like 460,000 Earths crumpled into the something the size of New York City. Forget about extracting samples (if anything existed that could actually get that close without being flattened). Just a teaspoon of that matter weighs a billion tons.
NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) will observe these dark orbs at a safe enough distance not to end up as a crushed piece of space junk. Its 56 X-ray telescopes and silicon detectors recently landed aboard the International Space Station along cargo resupply mission SpaceX CRS-11. The space agency is especially interested in pulsars, whose sweeping beams of radiation that flash periodically past our planet have set off alien false alarms. Its mission is to gather neutron star X-rays over a period of 18 months, zeroing in on the areas where particles previously trapped in a neutron star’s monstrous magnetic field come pelting down to the surface as X-rays.
“The nature of matter under these conditions is a decades-old unsolved problem,” said Keith Gendreau, NICER mission development leader and scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Theory has advanced a host of models to describe the physics governing the interiors of neutron stars. With NICER, we can finally test these theories with precise observations.”
Even with the veritable rainbow of radiation types emitted by neutron stars, the advantage of observing them in the energetic X-ray spectrum is that it will reveal the most about their structure and magnetic fields, along with associated high-energy phenomena such as thermonuclear explosions and starquakes. X-ray observation also acts as a sort of galactic GPS. Spacecraft lose the GPS signal after wandering far enough from Earth. Enter pulsars. Since their consistent signals are accessible from anywhere in the universe, using an advanced navigational device to automatically determine the craft’s location would be unexpected solution to deep-space ventures. The team plans to detect X-ray light emitted within the radiation beams of pulsars to estimate pulse arrival times (and therefore potential navigation accuracy) in the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology, aka SEXTANT, experiment.
NICER’s pulsar-fueled X-ray navigation will also star in an ambitious demonstration of XCOM (X-ray-based communications), which could allow human and robotic space travelers to transmit gigabits of data per second over immense distances in the future.
If that means we’ll be able to text astronauts on our smartphones, I’m in.