NASA Will Solve a Massive Physics Mystery This Summer

An illustration of two merging neutron stars. Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet
It takes 512 years for a high-energy photon to travel from the nearest neutron star to Earth. Just a few of them make the trip. But they carry the information necessary to solve one of the toughest questions in astrophysics.

By Rafi Letzter |

The photons shoot into space in an energetic rush. Hot beams of X-ray energy burst from the surface of the tiny, ultradense, spinning remnant of a supernova. The beams disperse over long centuries in transit. But every once in a while, a single dot of X-ray light that’s traveled 156 parsecs (512 light-years) across space — 32 million times the distance between Earth and the sun — expends itself against the International Space Station’s (ISS) X-ray telescope, nicknamed NICER. Then, down on Earth, a text file enters a new point of data: the photon’s energy and its arrival time, measured with microsecond accuracy.

That data point, along with countless others like it collected over the course of months, will answer a basic question as soon as summer 2018: Just how wide is J0437-4715, Earth’s nearest neutron-star neighbor?

If researchers can figure out the width of a neutron star, physicist Sharon Morsink told a crowd of scientists at the American Physical Society’s (APS) April 2018 meeting, that information could point the way toward solving one of the great mysteries of particle physics: How does matter behave when pushed to its wildest extremes? [10 Futuristic Technologies ‚Star Trek‘ Fans Would Love]

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