Neutron stars are the densest, most magnetic and fastest-spinning objects in the universe that scientists can observe directly. Each one is the crushed core of a massive star that ran out of fuel, collapsed under its own weight, and exploded as a supernova. A neutron star packs the equivalent mass of half-a-million Earths into a sphere about 12 miles across, roughly the length of Manhattan Island in New York City.
While typical neutron stars possess magnetic fields trillions of times stronger than Earth's, the eruptive activity observed from magnetars requires fields 1,000 times stronger still. To date, astronomers have confirmed only 23 magnetars.
Because a neutron star's solid crust is locked to its intense magnetic field, a disruption of one immediately affects the other. A fracture in the crust will lead to a reshuffling of the magnetic field, or a sudden reorganization of the magnetic field may instead crack the surface. Either way, the changes trigger a sudden release of stored energy via powerful bursts that vibrate the crust, a motion that becomes imprinted on the burst’s gamma-ray and X-ray signals.
It takes an incredible amount of energy to convulse a neutron star. The closest comparison on Earth is the 9.5-magnitude Chilean earthquake of 1960, which ranks as the most powerful ever recorded on the standard scale used by seismologists. On that scale, said Watts, a starquake associated with a magnetar giant flare would reach magnitude 23.
The 2009 burst storm came from SGR J1550−5418, an object discovered by NASA's Einstein Observatory, which operated from 1978 to 1981. Located about 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Norma, the magnetar was quiet until October 2008, when it entered a period of eruptive activity that ended in April 2009. At times, the object produced hundreds of bursts in as little as 20 minutes, and the most intense explosions emitted more total energy than the sun does in 20 years. High-energy instruments on many spacecraft, including NASA's Swift and Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, detected hundreds of gamma-ray and X-ray blasts.
Speaking at the Fifth Fermi International Symposium in Nagoya, Japan, on Oct. 21, Watts said the new study examined 263 individual bursts detected by Fermi's GBM and confirms vibrations in the frequency ranges previously seen in giant flares. "We think these are likely twisting oscillations of the star where the crust and the core, bound by the super-strong magnetic field, are vibrating together," she explained. "We also found, in a single burst, an oscillation at a frequency never seen before and which we still do not understand."
- Download HD video and related imagery from NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio
- Paper: "Quasi-Periodic Oscillations in Short Recurring Bursts of the Soft-Gamma Repeater J1550-5418"
- Paper: "Quasi-Periodic Oscillations and Broadband Variability in Short Magnetar Bursts"
- NASA's Swift, Fermi Probe Fireworks From a Flaring Gamma-Ray Star (02.10.2009)
- McGill Online Magnetar Catalog
- "NASA's Swift Reveals New Phenomenon in a Neutron Star" (05.09.2013)
- Magnetars: Special Stars With That Attractive Charm
- "Cosmic Explosion Among the Brightest in Recorded History" (02.18.2005)