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Life Cycle of Neutron Stars

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  • 0:07 Neutron Star Formation
  • 1:00 Neutron Star Density
  • 2:09 Pulsars
  • 3:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Meyers

Amy holds a Master of Science. She has taught science at the high school and college levels.

Discover the life of a neutron star, including how it's born after a supernova explosion and how its extreme pressure causes protons and electrons to combine into neutrons. Discover also how pulsars are rotating neutron stars that will eventually slow down to become regular neutron stars.

Neutron Star Formation

A neutron star is created after a supernova and grows smaller and denser.
Neutron Star Picture

Hello. I am a neutron star. That is a star at the end of its life journey. I'd like to tell you a little bit about myself, how I came to be this way, what I'm like, and what I'll be in the future. I am a very old remnant of a star. At one time, I was huge, up to eight times bigger than your sun. Then I died in a gigantic explosion called a supernova.

This explosion blew my outer layers into space, but the core of my being remained behind. My core no longer does nuclear fusion, so there is no outward push from this reaction to counteract the force of gravity pushing in on me. This causes my core to collapse inward, getting really small and dense. This extreme density allows protons and electrons to combine into neutrons, which is where I get my name, neutron star. A neutron star is a small, dense star made mostly of neutrons.

Neutron Star Density

Although I am very small, only about 12 miles in diameter, I possess huge amounts of mass, several times the mass of your sun, so I am one of the densest objects known. Just a teaspoon of me would weigh millions of tons on Earth. The heavier I get, the smaller I get. I bet most humans would like that ability. It is as if a 10lb bag of sugar was smaller than a 5lb bag.

If you would like to be like me, you must start as a star of a certain size, not too big and not too small - somewhere around 4-8 times the mass of your sun. If you start too small, about the size of our sun or a little bigger, you will never get enough density and gravity to condense when you die, so you'll only end up a white dwarf. A white dwarf is a star, about the size of our sun, at the end of its life that has run out of energy and collapsed. A black hole is an object that is so dense, not even light can escape it.

If you start too big, you will have so much density and gravity you'll end up a black hole. You have to have a size right in that sweet spot to make it in the neutron star category. Kind of like a Radio City Music Hall Rockette - not too short, not too tall.

Pulsars

A pulsar is a rotating neutron star that appears to blink on and off.
Pulsar Diagram

Pulsars are rotating neutron stars. Some of my buddies are pulsars. These guys think they are so high and mighty because they appear to blink on and off to you observers on Earth. But let me tell you, all they are are newbies - new neutron stars that have enough energy to spin. As new neutron stars are forming, getting smaller and denser, they spin and emit radiation. You Earth people see this radiation and think it looks like a blinking star.

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