Neutron Star vs Pulsar (and other FAQs)

Pulsars are actually a subset of the neutron star family, given a different name because of the way they behave and the way they are viewed by astronomers. Not every neutron star is a pulsar, but many of them are.

The article will explore the following topics:

  • What a Neutron star is and how it’s formed
  • What a Pulsar is
  • Differences between Pulsars and regular Neutron Stars
  • Well known Pulsars and Neutron Stars
  • Frequently asked questions about Neutron Stars and Pulsars

Neutron Star vs Pulsar (and other FAQs)

What Is a Neutron Star?

A neutron star is born when a massive star collapses.

These stars, about 1-3 times the mass of our sun, collapse in on themselves until the compression and newly formed neutrons halt the collapse.

The result is a small, very dense object, a star about the size of an island or a large city. This is a neutron star.

Are Neutron Stars the Densest Celestial Objects?

Officially,  black holes are the densest objects in space. 

However, neutron stars are a very close second.

Their matter is compacted so much that experts say a teaspoon worth of neutron star matter would weigh as much as a mountain of regular stone.

Neutron stars are considered to be the densest celestial body that can be directly observed, due to the light absorption properties of black holes. 

Can a Neutron Star explode?

The creation of a neutron star does involve an explosion. 

When the internal core collapses, the outer layers are blown off in the shockwave. 

Once a neutron star has formed, it is unlikely to explode again.

However,  it is a possibility,  if the neutron star absorbs enough matter to collapse into a black hole.  

Likewise, a collision between a neutron star and another celestial body of a certain mass could generate a new explosion as the two masses compress together. 

What is a Pulsar?

A pulsar, as a subset of the neutron star, shares the same formation process, and has a similar mass. 

A pulsar is characterized as a magnetized, rotating star that emits radiation from the two magnetic poles.

As the star rotates, the emission streams become visible, the disappear, the characteristic which gives the star its name.

Each pulsar has a specific frequency, or rate of spin that can be recorded and used to calculate other characteristics. 

Does a Pulsar’s Spin Rate Change?

According to astronomers,  it does.

Over time, the pulsar loses energy, due to the magnetic emissions. 

Once a certain threshold of decreasing rotation is reached, emissions cease, and the pulsar effectively ‘dies’.

What is a Dead Pulsar Called?

Dead pulsars – that is, pulsars that have ceased to emit radiation – are often called magnetars, as they still have their magnetic poles.

Comparison Between Neutron Stars

Regular neutron stars are difficult to detect and observe, since they no longer emit much energy.

Pulsars, on the other hand, are easier to spot, due to the radiation ‘pulses’ they give off.

Both stars rotate, but pulsars are said to be much faster.

Both stars start out extremely hot, and produce no new heat or luminous energy.

However, only the pulsars are magnetized, and spinning rapidly enough to produce emissions. 

Can Pulsars Become Regular Neutron Stars?

As their energy is reduced and their rate of spin slows, they may show characteristics of a normal neutron star. 

Pulsars are far more likely,  however,  to become magnetars.

Can A Neutron Star Become a Pulsar?

A neutron star alone couldn’t become a pulsar.

However, celestial collisions can create all sorts of interesting results.

It’s more likely that a collision would force a neutron star into a secondary collapse to become a black hole.

Theoretically,  under the exact right conditions, it might be possible for a neutron star to gain enough rotational energy and magnetic energy to become a pulsar. 

What are Some Well-Known Neutron Stars?

Most well known Neutron stars are pulsars, simply because these are easier to detect. However,  not all of them are pulsars.

Neutron stars that are not classified as pulsars can be officially identified by the RX designation at the beginning. Pulsars are identified with PSR.

One of the best known neutron stars is RX J1856. 5-3754. It’s one of the closest neutron stars observed,  at a distance of about 400 light years away.

This neutron star is one of an isolated cluster known as the ‘Magnificent Seven’. These stars have been observed to produce dim x-ray emissions. 

Another of these neutron stars, RX J0806.4-4123, recently showed signs of prolonged infrared emissions, causing speculation among the scientific community. 

Is Sirius a Neutron Star?

As far as anyone has been able to determine, Sirius is a binary star system.

The main component of the binary system is thought to be a white dwarf star, rather than a neutron star. 

What Are Some Well Known Pulsars?

Pulsars are far more well known. A few notable examples include:

PSR J0740+6620, which is the largest recorded neutron star of any kind to date. This pulsar is a millisecond pulsar with a mass of 2.17 solar masses crammed into a 30 kilometer wide sphere.

It’s a bit like stuffing Saturn or Jupiter into a basketball.

PSR J0250+5854 is the neutron star pulsar with the longest recorded rotation period, clocking in at 23.5 seconds.

The pulsar known as Geminga is considered one of the closest pulsars to Earth, at about 800 light years away.

The cluster known as the Magnificent Seven is said to contain X-ray pulsars as well as regular neutron stars.

Could We Create an Artificial Neutron Star?

Theoretically, scientists know the process of neutron star formation. 

However, the process is so extreme, and so time consuming, that even attempting it isn’t really feasible. 

At this time, there’s no way we could create an artificial neutron star. 

The energy and mass required makes it impossible with current technology and resources. 

Even if it were possible, doing so would create a gravity well that would crush the Earth.

The initial implosion/explosion process would do untold damage to the entire solar system. 

Could a Neutron Star Destroy Earth?

There are two theoretical ways a neutron star could destroy the Earth. 

1. There are theories that the sun, when it eventually burns through all its fuel, will become a neutron star. It’s on the small side, but within the theoretical range of mass required. 

If that happens,  the exploding outer layers, and the shockwave of the collapse will both fry and pulverize the Earth, and several other planets as well.

What remains will be dragged into the collapsing mass.

2. If a neutron star were to travel too close to the solar system,  it’s possible that the greater mass would drag the planets, Earth included, into its gravity, creating either a new orbit, or simply absorbing the matter.

Either way would be destructive to the Earth.

A disruption of orbit would result in huge climate changes. 

A neutron star doesn’t produce, or emit, much heat, especially if it’s an older star.

Pulled into orbit around such a star, the Earth would most likely freeze.

Pulsars vs Neutron Stars

There aren’t many differences between pulsars and regular neutron stars, but those differences are critical  for observers.

If you’re trying to spot a neutron star, the ‘blinking’ emissions of a pulsar will be much easier to find in the night sky.

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Neutron Star vs Pulsar

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