Contrary to what one might expect, neutron stars aren't always smooth; they can indeed have mountainous terrains.
Neutron stars, though compact and incredibly dense, may have a surprise for us: mountains. This new revelation can change the way we understand these stars and the gravitational waves they may generate.
It’s easy to picture a neutron star as a smooth celestial object, especially when it’s packed with the equivalent of two times the Sun’s mass into a sphere just 12 kilometers in diameter. At this scale, gravity becomes a monster, transforming atoms and molecules into bare nuclei and converting electrons into neutrons. But contrary to what one might expect, neutron stars aren’t always smooth; they can indeed have mountainous terrains.
Pulsars: The Clue to Neutron Star Activity
Thanks to pulsars, or rotating neutron stars emitting beams of radio energy, we’ve uncovered evidence of geological activity on neutron stars. These beams light up our skies at regular intervals, but occasionally, there’s a glitch – a tiny, sudden increase in rotation. This deviation is believed to be caused by a ‘starquake,’ or the shifting of the star’s crust.
Like Earth and other geologically active planets, neutron stars too witness the evolution of mountains. However, the mystery lies in their distribution and size. Our understanding is limited because the internal structure of these stars remains an enigma. A recent study dives deep into this.
Gravitational Waves: The Signal From the Stars
The researchers propose that if a neutron star has mountains, especially those not aligned symmetrically with its axis, it should emit gravitational waves as it rotates. Though we haven’t detected these waves yet, upcoming observatories might just be our ticket. What’s intriguing is that the nature of these gravitational waves depends on the mountain’s structure.
To decipher the potential structures of these mountains, researchers looked at familiar worlds, such as Mercury and Enceladus. Mercury, with its thin crust and large metallic core, has peculiar features like lobate scarps, likely due to its cooling interior. With its icy crust and underlying ocean, Enceladus showcases a distinct “tiger stripe” mountain pattern. Other icy moons like Europa have linear mountain features. The idea? Understand if neutron stars’ crusts have similar behaviors.
One key takeaway from the study is that if neutron stars have features similar to Mercury’s scarps, the resulting gravitational waves might limit the star’s rotation speed. The researchers further speculate on the diverse structures of neutron stars, suggesting that some might resemble Mercury, while others could be akin to Europa or Enceladus. Hence, studying the gravitational waves from these stars can unveil the intricate details of their makeup.
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