How It Works

Peer inside a neutron star

A star with a mass of less than 1.5 solar masses (the mass of the Sun) forms a white dwarf at the end of its lifetime, owing to its gravity being too weak to collapse it further. If the mass of a star is greater than five solar masses, the forces will be so intense that the star collapses past the point of a neutron star and becomes a black hole. However, between these two extremes a neutron star will form as the result of a supernova, although only approximately one in a thousand stars will become one.

As a star runs out of fuel it will eventually collapse in upon itself. In the formation of a neutron star, the protons and electrons within every atom are forced together, forming neutrons. Material that is falling to the centre of the star is then crushed by the intense gravitational forces in the star and forms this same neutron material. Like the Earth, magnetic fields surround neutron stars and are tipped at the axis of rotation, namely the north and south poles. However, the magnetic field of a neutron star is more than a trillion times stronger than that of Earth’s.

The gravitational forces in a neutron star are also incredibly strong. The matter is so densely packed together into a radius of 20 kilometres (12 miles) that one teaspoon of mass would weigh up to a billion tons, about the same as Mount Everest. They also spin up to 600 times per second, gradually slowing down as they age.

Oddly enough, as a neutron star becomes heavier it also becomes smaller. This is because a greater mass means a greater force of gravitational attraction, and therefore the neutrons are squeezed more densely together. In fact, if you were able to drop an object from a height of one metre on the surface of a neutron star, it would hit the ground at about 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) per second.