NASA Tries to Crack the Case of the Neutron Star

The ultra-intense gravitational pull and staggering density of neutron stars have made them some of the most difficult objects to study in space. But if we can understand them, they could be the key to the next generation of space travel. To get a closer look, NASA is sending its new creation, the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) to the International Space Station.

NICER Mechanical Engineer Steven Kenyon (left) and GPS and Star Tracker Camera Engineer Eric Rogstad (right) prepare NICER for shipment to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Massive Mysteries

Neutron stars are the collapsed iron core of an enormous star, the result of a supernova explosion at the end of a star's life. During the explosion, the outer layers of the star blow off and the remaining the mass of the core folds in on itself, condensing in size while increasing in gravity so dramatically that its protons and electron combine to make the neutrons for which it is named.

Neutron stars are only about 12 miles in diameter, but at 1.5 times the mass of the Earth's sun they are incredibly dense for their size, or anything else. They are so dense, in fact, that according to National Geographic, a sugar-cube-sized amount of neutron star matter would weigh one hundred million tons on Earth! All that mass makes the gravitational pull of neutron stars more than 1 billion times that of Earth's—a force strong enough to pulverize a human being within seconds.

On top of that, consider the neutron stars' perpetual motion — they're known to rotate up to 600 times per second. For these reasons and more, these unusual space objects have been understandably difficult to study, even for the professionals, which means the full extent of their makeup and function remains a mystery. With the NICER payload, NASA has launched its first-ever mission aimed solely at learning about neutron stars, with a special focus on pulsars, a special kind of glowing neutron star that may light the way for future deep space exploration.

A "Nicer" Way to Explore

On June 3, 2017, NICER hitched a ride to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX-11 ISS Commercial Resupply Services Flight, taking off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Over its 18-month mission, it will take measurements of neutron stars and collect X-rays. NICER will also test technologies such as X-ray navigation, which uses pulsars as navigational beacons in a type of intergalactic GPS, as well as X-ray communications (XCOM), which could enable space travelers to transmit data over huge distances. Although these methods have been tested on Earth before, with NICER they'll be making their space debut. If the the results are promising, they could lead to missions to the outer corners of our solar system and beyond.

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Neutron Stars

The Basics Of Neutron Stars

What is a Neutron Star?

Written by Jamie Ludwig June 30, 2017

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