A billion suns' worth of energy spews from the 'Cosmic Monster' star.


A powerful X-ray burst erupts from a magnetar — a supermagnetized version of a stellar remnant known as a neutron star — in this illustration.
A powerful X-ray burst erupts from a magnetar — a supermagnetized version of a stellar remnant known 
as a neutron star — in this illustration.  
(Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (USRA))

A massive, magnetic star abruptly burst and vomited out as much energy as a billion suns — and it occurred in a fraction of a second, scientists recently found.

A magnetar is a neutron star with an unusually high magnetic field; these stars are known to flare up dramatically and without any prior notice. Magnetars. But even though magnetars maybe hundreds of times brighter than our sun, their eruptions are so fleeting and unexpected that they're tough for astrophysicists to discover and analyze.

The brightness of a magnetar fluctuated as it erupted, but researchers could capture and analyze one of these flares. The scientists concluded that the faraway magnetar unleashed as much energy as our sun generates in 100,000 years, and it did it in only 1/10 of a second, according to a statement translated from Spanish.


Related: When will the sun explode?

A neutron star arises when a giant star collapses near its existence. Protons and electrons in the core of a dying star are crushed into a compressed solar mass by a supernova's high-speed revolution and enormous magnetic forces. This is what NASA calls a "compressed solar mass." 1.3 to 2.5 solar masses — the mass of our sun, or roughly 330,000 Earths — are compressed into a sphere with a diameter of 12 miles (20 kilometres) to form neutron stars.

According to NASA, a passing marshmallow would strike the surface of a neutron star with the force of 1,000 hydrogen bombs because neutron stars' matter is so densely packed that even a cube the size of a sugar cube would weigh over 1 billion tons (900 million metric tons).

Magnetars are the most potent magnetic objects in the universe, having magnetic fields 1,000 times greater than those of average neutron stars. Our sun pales in contrast to these brilliant, dense stars even when they aren't exploding. In the release, the primary study author Alberto J. Castro-Tirado, a research professor at the Institute for Astrophysics of Andalucía at the Spanish Research Council.

As Castro-Tirado put it: "Even when they're dormant, magnetars maybe 100,000 times brighter than our sun." "But in the case of the flash that we have investigated — GRB2001415 — the energy that was emitted is similar to that which our sun releases every 100,000 years."

A "giant flare"

The magnetar that generated the short eruption is situated in the Sculptor Galaxy, a spiral galaxy approximately 13 million light-years from Earth, and is "a genuine cosmic monster," research co-author Victor Reglero, head of UV's Image Processing Laboratory, said in the announcement. The massive flare was observed on April 15, 2020, by the Atmosphere–Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM) instrument on the International Space Station, researchers, announced December 22 in the journal Nature.

Artificial intelligence (AI) in the ASIM pipeline recognized the flare, allowing the researchers to examine that short, explosive energy spike; the flare lasted only 0.16 seconds and then the signal dropped so swiftly that it was practically indistinguishable from background noise in the data. Using ASIM's two seconds of data, which they divided into four phases depending on the magnetar's energy output, the researchers spent more than a year monitoring changes in the star's magnetic field induced by the energy pulse at its peak.


Related: The study of solar eruptions.

Reglero said it's almost as if the magnetar wanted to proclaim its presence "from its cosmic loneliness" by yelling into the abyss of space with the power "of a billion suns.

Only around 30 magnetars have been found from about 3,000 known neutron stars, and this is the most distant magnetar flare observed to date. Scientists assume that eruptions such as this one may be triggered by so-called starquakes that damage magnetars' elastic outer layers. According to the study, this uncommon discovery might help researchers untangle the tensions that create magnetars' energy burps.


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