Warehouse G

Shots Of Gamma Rays

Mysterious Magnetism Energy of Magnetars

By James Donahue

Among the first indications that something unusual was actively operating in the universe was an event that occurred on March 5, 1979. It began when two Soviet satellites circling Venus recorded a sudden increase in radiation readings from the normal 100 counts per second to over 200,000 counts.

The burst of gamma rays quickly spread. Eleven seconds later, Helios 2, a NASA probe orbiting the Sun, was hit. Then Pioneer Venus Orbiter’s detectors orbiting Venus were zapped by the wave. Seconds later the radiation wave arrived on Earth. It was the strongest wave of extra-solar gamma rays ever recorded; over 100 times more powerful than anything ever recorded from outside our solar system.

So where would a blast of energy like that come from? Astronomers have long theorized in the existence of super-magnetized stars, the remnant of a dying star that has collapsed into a cluster of matter only a few miles in diameter, but with a volume so dense it is not only amazingly heavy but possessing magnetic fields up to one million billion times stronger than anything we experience on Earth.

The collapse of such a star, turning it from a burned-out sun into a neutron star, could theoretically discharge powerful flashes of gamma rays throughout the universe. Thus a blast like the one recorded in 1979, and similar extra-solar blasts of gamma rays recorded in 1998 and 2004, are confirming the existence of super-magnetized stars, or magnetars.

It is believed that quakes occurring on such magnetars continue to shoot out blasts of energy for thousands of years after they collapse and compress to be a neutron star. The gravitational pull of such stars is extremely powerful.

Scientists believe a magnetar is so compressed that a thimbleful of its material would weigh over 100 million tons if it could magically be brought to Earth. Most known magnetars, and there are now a few that have been actually identified, rotate at high speed. The active life of a magnetar is short, with the magnetic fields weakening in decay after about 10,000 years. After this, the strong X-ray emissions cease.

Once they go inactive, such stars are difficult for astronomers on Earth to detect because they become merely small, heavy objects spinning in space. The energy in them is completely spent. From the age of the universe, it is estimated that there may be up to 100 million of those things floating around out there. But that is just a guess.