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Most Massive Neutron Star Ever Detected, Almost Too Massive to Exist

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Astronomers using the GBT have discovered the most massive neutron star to date, a rapidly spinning pulsar approximately 4,600 light-years from Earth. This record-breaking object is teetering on the edge of existence, approaching the theoretical maximum mass possible for a neutron star.

Artist impression of the pulse from a massive neutron star being delayed by the passage of a white dwarf star between the neutron star and Earth.
Credit: BSaxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF
Neutron stars – the compressed remains of massive stars gone supernova – are the densest “normal” objects in the known universe. (Black holes are technically denser, but far from normal.) Just a single sugar-cube worth of neutron-star material would weigh 100 million tons here on Earth, or about the same as the entire human population. Though astronomers and physicists have studied and marveled at these objects for decades, many mysteries remain about the nature of their interiors: Do crushed neutrons become “superfluid” and flow freely? Do they breakdown into a soup of subatomic quarks or other exotic particles? What is the tipping point when gravity wins out over matter and forms a black hole?

A team of astronomers using the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Green Bank Telescope (GBT) has brought us closer to finding the answers.

The researchers, members of the NANOGrav Physics Frontiers Center, discovered that a rapidly rotating millisecond pulsar, called J0740+6620, is the most massive neutron star ever measured, packing 2.17 times the mass of our Sun into a sphere only 30 kilometers across. This measurement approaches the limits of how massive and compact a single object can become without crushing itself down into a black hole. Recent work involving gravitational waves observed from colliding neutron stars by LIGO suggests that 2.17 solar masses might be very near that limit.

“Neutron stars are as mysterious as they are fascinating,” said Thankful Cromartie, a graduate student at the University of Virginia and Grote Reber pre-doctoral fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. “These city-sized objects are essentially ginormous atomic nuclei. They are so massive that their interiors take on weird properties. Finding the maximum mass that physics and nature will allow can teach us a great deal about this otherwise inaccessible realm in astrophysics.”

Pulsars get their name because of the twin beams of radio waves they emit from their magnetic poles. These beams sweep across space in a lighthouse-like fashion. Some rotate hundreds of times each second. Since pulsars spin with such phenomenal speed and regularity, astronomers can use them as the cosmic equivalent of atomic clocks. Such precise timekeeping helps astronomers study the nature of spacetime, measure the masses of stellar objects, and improve their understanding of general relativity.

In the case of this binary system, which is nearly edge-on in relation to Earth, this cosmic precision provided a pathway for astronomers to calculate the mass of the two stars.

Artist impression and animation of the Shapiro Delay. As the neutron star sends a steady pulse towards the Earth, the passage of its companion white dwarf star warps the space surrounding it, creating the subtle delay in the pulse signal. 
Animation: BSaxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

As the ticking pulsar passes behind its white dwarf companion, there is a subtle (on the order of 10 millionths of a second) delay in the arrival time of the signals. This phenomenon is known as “Shapiro Delay.” In essence, gravity from the white dwarf star slightly warps the space surrounding it, in accordance with Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This warping means the pulses from the rotating neutron star have to travel just a little bit farther as they wend their way around the distortions of spacetime caused by the white dwarf.

Astronomers can use the amount of that delay to calculate the mass of the white dwarf. Once the mass of one of the co-orbiting bodies is known, it is a relatively straightforward process to accurately determine the mass of the other.

Cromartie is the principal author on a paper accepted for publication in Nature Astronomy. The GBT observations were research related to her doctoral thesis, which proposed observing this system at two special points in their mutual orbits to accurately calculate the mass of the neutron star.

“The orientation of this binary star system created a fantastic cosmic laboratory,” said Scott Ransom, an astronomer at NRAO and coauthor on the paper. “Neutron stars have this tipping point where their interior densities get so extreme that the force of gravity overwhelms even the ability of neutrons to resist further collapse. Each “most massive” neutron star we find brings us closer to identifying that tipping point and helping us to understand the physics of matter at these mindboggling densities.”

These observation were also part of a larger observing campaign known as NANOGrav, short for the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, which is a Physics Frontiers Center funded by the NSF.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

The Green Bank Observatory is supported by the National Science Foundation, and is operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Contacts and sources:
Jill Malusky
Green Bank Observatory

Citation: Relativistic Shapiro delay measurements of an extremely massive millisecond pulsar. H. T. Cromartie, E. Fonseca, S. M. Ransom, P. B. Demorest, Z. Arzoumanian, H. Blumer, P. R. Brook, M. E. DeCesar, T. Dolch, J. A. Ellis, R. D. Ferdman, E. C. Ferrara, N. Garver-Daniels, P. A. Gentile, M. L. Jones, M. T. Lam, D. R. Lorimer, R. S. Lynch, M. A. McLaughlin, C. Ng, D. J. Nice, T. T. Pennucci, R. Spiewak, I. H. Stairs, K. Stovall, J. K. Swiggum, W. W. Zhu. Nature Astronomy, 2019; DOI: 10.1038/s41550-019-0880-2



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  • Counter Analysis

    Just some crazy thinking:

    I have sometimes wondered whether the link between the strong force and electromagnetism is related to distance. Perhaps the two forces are the same force that diverge at the border of matter being so close the strong force binds, and just far enough apart that electromagnetism manifests. There may be a huge energy differential across this border, thus making this border very difficult to traverse. Trying to pull quarks apart is an illustration of this point, as is the difficulty of nuclear fusion. The energy given off by decaying unstable nuclei, fission, and fusion are other illustrations of this point. So traversing this border may have near instant powerful effects.

    A neutron star may be bound by the strong force similar to how an atomic nucleus is held together stably or otherwise by the strong force leaking out and overpowering the electromagnetic force. And the intense gravity may enable the leaking strong force to overcome the electromagnetic force for a 20 km neutron star as opposed to just a microscopic nucleus. It could also be that there is a point at which gravity plus the leaking strong force vs electromagnetism fluctuate back and forth as to which side dominates, and that with each change of domination, energy is released. This may explain the pulsar.

    Now suppose gravity becomes so intense, that added to the strong force, nucleons are not just held together by the leaking strong force, but their actual quarks are all bunched up together in an even smaller space like the trio or couple quark configurations that are familiar in the Standard Model. This is a decisive transverse of that border between electromagnetism and the strong force. The energy given off may be a gamma ray burst. It could be that the energy given off is so powerful that even the gravitational red shift fails to curtail the release to less than gamma rays. Or, possibly, the collapse of the mass, happens so suddenly that almost all of the gravity disappears for the briefest interval of time thus allowing an unadulterated gamma ray burst. This interval may be proportional to the wavelength of the gamma ray. In previous commentary, I have laid out the connection between electromagnetism and gravity. The reason for the brief lapse in gravity may be that the collapse happens faster than the speed of light. If this sounds like I’m talking about a black hole, that is probably the case. It would be interesting to see if gravity waves result.




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