There are things in our universe that should absolutely freak anyone out. The universe is a vast place, so it makes sense that there are some things out there that are freakish, odd, and unimaginably dangerous.
Today, we are going to focus on one of them, something so odd and destructive that if one was found anywhere near our solar system, it would wreak havoc across our family of planets, celestial bodies, and our own home. We are talking about the rare and elusive magnetar. These small magnetic beasts would give Magneto a run for his money.
A cousin to the neutron star, magnetars have such huge magnetic fields that if you were unlucky enough to be within 1,000 miles (1600 km) from one, the magnetic force would rip iron apart from your bloodstream atom by atom, its gravity would rip you apart too probably. However, we are getting ahead of ourselves. As stated, the universe is a hostile place, and you do not want to ever cross paths with a magnetar on your journey to the edge of the universe.
Magnetars are still sort of a mystery to astronomers.
Not much is really known about magnetars. These ultra-powerful magnetic neutron star variants love to play hide-and-seek with astronomers. Researchers probably know much more about other rare events like pulsars and quasars. What is even more strange, is that magnetars tend to demonstrate very inconsistent behavior, erupting bursts of X-rays without warning, some for hours and others for months before dimming and disappearing again. On top of this, their rarity makes them very frustrating to study.
As mentioned by Dr. Peter Woods of the Universities Space Research Association, "We only know of about ten magnetars in the Milky Way galaxy. "If the antics of the magnetar we are studying now are typical, then there very well could be hundreds more out there." NASA research has suggested there may be far more magnetars than previously thought. In general, observing explosions in space is very hard, and witnessing something that has never officially been seen in action is even more tricky.
Magnetars are the neutron star zombies of the universe.
However, you would not want to experience this type of zombie apocalypse. It is believed that magnetars are a special kind of neutron star, and neutron stars are a unique breed of dead stars. Neutron stars are massively dense, city-sized objects about 1.4 times the mass of our sun with relatively small radiuses. When a star four to eight times as massive as the Sun explodes in a violent supernova, the star's outer layer is usually blown off. What is usually left behind is a small, dense core that continues to collapse in on itself. The sheer gravity of the dense material compresses in on itself so tightly that protons and electrons eventually combine to make neutrons. The dense neutrons prevent further collapse.
Neutron stars themselves are not that big compared to their original stars. They usually pack their entire mass inside a 12.4-mile (20 km) diameter. As for their density, a single teaspoon would weigh around a billion tons. They are so dense, that the gravity of neutron star is around 2 billion times stronger than gravity on Earth. However, not all neutron stars are magnetars.
NASA explains neutron stars as some of the densest objects in the universe, only surpassed by black holes. And magnetars are neutron stars with particularly strong magnetic fields, that is, about 1000 times stronger than that of a typical neutron star. Which makes it about a trillion times stronger than Earth's magnetic field. We know about 30 or so magnetars only.
Magnetars appear when a neutron star's conditions are just right.
For a neutron star to come into existence in the first place, the conditions need to be right. The spin and temperature of a neutron star have to be just right to convert that energy into a very strong magnetic energy.
Neutron stars are already oddities in the realms of the universe. However, it is important to mention that even though neutron stars and magnetars are similar in some ways, they also have very different characteristics. Magnetic fields require charged particles, and yes, neutrons are... neutral. So, how do neutrons turn into magnetars?
After our supernova explosion, a few protons are still present in the newly formed neutron star. Normally, those protons would repel one another, as they have the same charge, but they are forced close together and the complex physics of the extreme density means that a very powerful magnetic field can be generated.
If you took a star eight times bigger than our own Sun and crunched its magnetic field to fit the size of our neutron star, it would get a stronger magnetic field. Thanks to a little bit of complicated physics, these neutron stars can have a magnetic field of 1 trillion gausses.
There are some differences between neutron stars and magnetars and neutron stars.
One of the most important characteristic differences between neutron stars and magnetars boils down to their rotation. Magnetars rotate at a very slow rate, usually once every 8 to 10 seconds, compared to neutron stars, which can rotate once per second. Another difference between a magnetar and a neutron star is that magnetars are believed to emit a slow wave of x-rays which is much more powerful than its neutron cousin. While neutron stars have solid crusts, and a heavy "soupy" interior, in contrast, magnetars are believed to have more unstable crusts and internal convection that carries heat.
Magnetars can have very short life-spans.
Ok, 10,000 years is already not that long, but on the cosmic scale and compared to other stars, that is barely a blink. As we have already discussed, magnetars have a tremendous magnetic field. This same magnetic field deforms the crust of the neutron star, resulting in starquakes that can lead to some of the most powerful gamma-ray flare-ups in the universe, capable of outshining all of the stars in its galaxy for a few tenths of a second.
Magnetars would tear you apart atom by atom if you were just 1,000 miles away.
Fun. When you take into account the fact that we can't easily track magnetars at the moment, you should be scared. As mentioned, a magnetar in our solar system would wreak havoc on our home planet, disrupting a lot of the natural order of things. If a magnetar was only 100,000 miles (161,000 km) away from the Earth it would likely wipe out all the data in every credit card in the world. However, just about a thousand miles from a magnetar, the magnetic force is extreme enough to warp the atoms in your body, and tear you apart literally.
The chances of a magnetar getting that close are slim. Ironically, it's not just the magnetic force that you have to worry about. If a magnetar triggers those powerful gamma-ray flare-ups, the star would only need to be ten light-years away for it to wipe out our ozone layer, causing the end of life on Earth... yay.
Again, to put things into perspective, the Earth's magnetic field is said to be about 1 gauss. A gauss is a unit of magnetic induction. The strongest human-made magnetic fields are around a few hundred thousand Gauss. A magnetar's magnetic field is estimated to be as high as a trillion Gauss.
But, again, magnetars are still very rare.
Based on what we know so far, magnetars are really rare. It has hypothesized that out of every ten supernovae, one becomes a magnetar. With the help of the powerful Chandra X-ray Center, astronomers have hypothesized why magnetars have these tremendous magnetic forces; yet there is still is a lot we don't know about these stars.
"We're not exactly sure what makes magnetars so frighteningly magnetic. As I said, the physics of neutron stars is a little bit sketchy. It does seem, though, that magnetars don't last long, and after 10,000 years give or take, they settle down into a long-term normal neutron-star retirement: still insanely dense, still freaky magnetic, just… not so bad," says the scientist Paul Sutter in an interview with Space.com.