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Artist's conception of a magnetar, with magnetic field lines Magnetar-3b-450x580.gif
Artist's conception of a magnetar, with magnetic field lines
Artist's conception of a powerful magnetar in a star cluster Artist's impression of the magnetar in the star cluster Westerlund 1.jpg
Artist's conception of a powerful magnetar in a star cluster

A magnetar is a type of neutron star believed to have an extremely powerful magnetic field ( G, T) [1] . The magnetic field decay powers the emission of high-energy electromagnetic radiation, particularly X-rays and gamma rays. [2] The theory regarding these objects was proposed by Robert Duncan and Christopher Thompson in 1992, but the first recorded burst of gamma rays thought to have been from a magnetar had been detected on March 5, 1979. [3] During the following decade, the magnetar hypothesis became widely accepted as a likely explanation for soft gamma repeaters (SGRs) and anomalous X-ray pulsars (AXPs).

Neutron star degenerate stellar remnant

A neutron star is the collapsed core of a giant star which before collapse had a total of between 10 and 29 solar masses. Neutron stars are the smallest and densest stars, not counting hypothetical quark stars and strange stars. Neutron stars have a radius of the order of 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) and a mass lower than a 2.16 solar masses. They result from the supernova explosion of a massive star, combined with gravitational collapse, that compresses the core past white dwarf star density to that of atomic nuclei.

Magnetic field spatial distribution of vectors allowing the calculation of the magnetic force on a test particle

A magnetic field is a vector field that describes the magnetic influence of electric charges in relative motion and magnetized materials. Magnetic fields are observed in a wide range of size scales, from subatomic particles to galaxies. In everyday life, the effects of magnetic fields are often seen in permanent magnets, which pull on magnetic materials and attract or repel other magnets. Magnetic fields surround and are created by magnetized material and by moving electric charges such as those used in electromagnets. Magnetic fields exert forces on nearby moving electrical charges and torques on nearby magnets. In addition, a magnetic field that varies with location exerts a force on magnetic materials. Both the strength and direction of a magnetic field vary with location. As such, it is an example of a vector field.

The gauss, abbreviated as G or Gs, is the cgs unit of measurement of magnetic flux density (B). It is named after German mathematician and physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss. One gauss is defined as one maxwell per square centimeter. The cgs system has been superseded by the International System of Units (SI), which uses the tesla as the unit of magnetic flux density. One gauss equals 1×104 tesla, so 1 tesla = 10,000 gauss.



Like other neutron stars, magnetars are around 20 kilometres (12 mi) in diameter and have a mass 2–3 times that of the Sun. The density of the interior of a magnetar is such that a tablespoon of its substance would have a mass of over 100 million tons. [2] Magnetars are differentiated from other neutron stars by having even stronger magnetic fields, and by rotating comparatively quicker. Most neutron stars rotate once every one to ten seconds, [4] whereas magnetars rotate once in less than one second. A magnetar's magnetic field gives rise to very strong and characteristic bursts of X-rays and gamma rays. The active life of a magnetar is short. Their strong magnetic fields decay after about 10,000 years, after which activity and strong X-ray emission cease. Given the number of magnetars observable today, one estimate puts the number of inactive magnetars in the Milky Way at 30 million or more. [4]

Sun Star at the centre of the Solar System

The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is a nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma, with internal convective motion that generates a magnetic field via a dynamo process. It is by far the most important source of energy for life on Earth. Its diameter is about 1.39 million kilometers, or 109 times that of Earth, and its mass is about 330,000 times that of Earth. It accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. Roughly three quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen (~73%); the rest is mostly helium (~25%), with much smaller quantities of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron.

Milky Way spiral galaxy containing our Solar System

The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System. The name describes the galaxy's appearance from Earth: a hazy band of light seen in the night sky formed from stars that cannot be individually distinguished by the naked eye. The term Milky Way is a translation of the Latin via lactea, from the Greek γαλαξίας κύκλος. From Earth, the Milky Way appears as a band because its disk-shaped structure is viewed from within. Galileo Galilei first resolved the band of light into individual stars with his telescope in 1610. Until the early 1920s, most astronomers thought that the Milky Way contained all the stars in the Universe. Following the 1920 Great Debate between the astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, observations by Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies. The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy with a diameter between 150,000 and 200,000 light-years (ly). It is estimated to contain 100–400 billion stars and more than 100 billion planets. The Solar System is located at a radius of 26,490 light-years from the Galactic Center, on the inner edge of the Orion Arm, one of the spiral-shaped concentrations of gas and dust. The stars in the innermost 10,000 light-years form a bulge and one or more bars that radiate from the bulge. The galactic center is an intense radio source known as Sagittarius A*, assumed to be a supermassive black hole of 4.100 million solar masses.

Starquakes triggered on the surface of the magnetar disturb the magnetic field which encompasses it, often leading to extremely powerful gamma ray flare emissions which have been recorded on Earth in 1979, 1998, and 2004. [5]

Gamma-ray burst flashes of gamma rays from distant galaxies

In gamma-ray astronomy, gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are extremely energetic explosions that have been observed in distant galaxies. They are the brightest electromagnetic events known to occur in the universe. Bursts can last from ten milliseconds to several hours. After an initial flash of gamma rays, a longer-lived "afterglow" is usually emitted at longer wavelengths.

Magnetic field

Magnetars are characterized by their extremely powerful magnetic fields of 108 to 1011 tesla. [6] These magnetic fields are hundreds of millions of times stronger than any man-made magnet, [7] and quadrillions of times more powerful than the field surrounding Earth. [8] Earth has a geomagnetic field of 30–60 microteslas, and a neodymium-based, rare-earth magnet has a field of about 1.25 tesla, with a magnetic energy density of 4.0×105 J/m3. A magnetar's 1010 tesla field, by contrast, has an energy density of 4.0×1025 J/m3, with an E/c2 mass density more than 10,000 times that of lead. The magnetic field of a magnetar would be lethal even at a distance of 1000 km due to the strong magnetic field distorting the electron clouds of the subject's constituent atoms, rendering the chemistry of life impossible. [9] At a distance of halfway from Earth to the moon, a magnetar could strip information from the magnetic stripes of all credit cards on Earth. [10] As of 2010, they are the most powerful magnetic objects detected throughout the universe. [5] [11]

The tesla is a derived unit of the magnetic induction in the International System of Units.

Earths magnetic field Magnetic field that extends from the Earths inner core to where it meets the solar wind

Earth's magnetic field, also known as the geomagnetic field, is the magnetic field that extends from the Earth's interior out into space, where it interacts with the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emanating from the Sun. The magnetic field is generated by electric currents due to the motion of convection currents of molten iron in the Earth's outer core: these convection currents are caused by heat escaping from the core, a natural process called a geodynamo. The magnitude of the Earth's magnetic field at its surface ranges from 25 to 65 microteslas. As an approximation, it is represented by a field of a magnetic dipole currently tilted at an angle of about 11 degrees with respect to Earth's rotational axis, as if there were a bar magnet placed at that angle at the center of the Earth. The North geomagnetic pole, currently located near Greenland in the northern hemisphere, is actually the south pole of the Earth's magnetic field, and conversely.

Neodymium magnet type of magnet

A neodymium magnet (also known as NdFeB, NIB or Neo magnet), the most widely used type of rare-earth magnet, is a permanent magnet made from an alloy of neodymium, iron and boron to form the Nd2Fe14B tetragonal crystalline structure. Developed independently in 1982 by General Motors and Sumitomo Special Metals, neodymium magnets are the strongest type of permanent magnet commercially available. Due to different manufacturing processes, they are also divided into two subcategories, namely sintered NdFeB magnets and bonded NdFeB magnets. They have replaced other types of magnets in many applications in modern products that require strong permanent magnets, such as motors in cordless tools, hard disk drives and magnetic fasteners.

As described in the February 2003 Scientific American cover story, remarkable things happen within a magnetic field of magnetar strength. "X-ray photons readily split in two or merge. The vacuum itself is polarized, becoming strongly birefringent, like a calcite crystal. Atoms are deformed into long cylinders thinner than the quantum-relativistic de Broglie wavelength of an electron." [3] In a field of about 105 teslas atomic orbitals deform into rod shapes. At 1010 teslas, a hydrogen atom becomes a spindle 200 times narrower than its normal diameter. [3]

<i>Scientific American</i> American popular science magazine

Scientific American is an American popular science magazine. Many famous scientists, including Albert Einstein, have contributed articles to it. It is the oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the United States.

X-ray form of electromagnetic radiation

X-rays make up X-radiation, a form of electromagnetic radiation. Most X-rays have a wavelength ranging from 0.01 to 10 nanometers, corresponding to frequencies in the range 30 petahertz to 30 exahertz (3×1016 Hz to 3×1019 Hz) and energies in the range 100 eV to 100 keV. X-ray wavelengths are shorter than those of UV rays and typically longer than those of gamma rays. In many languages, X-radiation is referred to with terms meaning Röntgen radiation, after the German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen who discovered these on November 8, 1895, who usually is credited as its discoverer, and who named it X-radiation to signify an unknown type of radiation. Spelling of X-ray(s) in the English language includes the variants x-ray(s), xray(s), and X ray(s).

Calcite carbonate mineral

Calcite is a carbonate mineral and the most stable polymorph of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). The Mohs scale of mineral hardness, based on scratch hardness comparison, defines value 3 as "calcite".

Origins of magnetic fields

The strong fields of magnetars are understood as resulting from a magnetohydrodynamic dynamo process in the turbulent, extremely dense conducting fluid that exists before the neutron star settles into its equilibrium configuration. These fields then persist due to persistent currents in a proton-superconductor phase of matter that exists at an intermediate depth within the neutron star (where neutrons predominate by mass). A similar magnetohydrodynamic dynamo process produces even more intense transient fields during coalescence of pairs of neutron stars. [12]


Magnetar SGR 1900+14 (center of image) showing a surrounding ring of gas 7 light-years across in infrared light, as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope. The magnetar itself is not visible at this wavelength but has been seen in X-ray light. Magnetar SGR 1900+14.jpg
Magnetar SGR 1900+14 (center of image) showing a surrounding ring of gas 7 light-years across in infrared light, as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope. The magnetar itself is not visible at this wavelength but has been seen in X-ray light.

When in a supernova, a star collapses to a neutron star, and its magnetic field increases dramatically in strength. Halving a linear dimension increases the magnetic field fourfold. Duncan and Thompson calculated that when the spin, temperature and magnetic field of a newly formed neutron star falls into the right ranges, a dynamo mechanism could act, converting heat and rotational energy into magnetic energy and increasing the magnetic field, normally an already enormous 108 teslas, to more than 1011 teslas (or 1015 gauss). The result is a magnetar. [13] It is estimated that about one in ten supernova explosions results in a magnetar rather than a more standard neutron star or pulsar. [14]

1979 discovery

On March 5, 1979, a few months after the successful dropping of satellites into the atmosphere of Venus, the two unmanned Soviet spaceprobes, Venera 11 and 12, that were then drifting through the Solar System were hit by a blast of gamma radiation at approximately 10:51 EST. This contact raised the radiation readings on both the probes from a normal 100 counts per second to over 200,000 counts a second, in only a fraction of a millisecond. [3]

This burst of gamma rays quickly continued to spread. Eleven seconds later, Helios 2, a NASA probe, which was in orbit around the Sun, was saturated by the blast of radiation. It soon hit Venus, and the Pioneer Venus Orbiter's detectors were overcome by the wave. Seconds later, Earth received the wave of radiation, where the powerful output of gamma rays inundated the detectors of three U.S. Department of Defense Vela satellites, the Soviet Prognoz 7 satellite, and the Einstein Observatory. Just before the wave exited the Solar System, the blast also hit the International Sun–Earth Explorer. This extremely powerful blast of gamma radiation constituted the strongest wave of extra-solar gamma rays ever detected; it was over 100 times more intense than any known previous extra-solar burst. Because gamma rays travel at the speed of light and the time of the pulse was recorded by several distant spacecraft as well as on Earth, the source of the gamma radiation could be calculated to an accuracy of about 2 arcseconds. [15] The direction of the source corresponded with the remnants of a star that had gone supernova around 3000 B.C.E. [5] It was in the Large Magellanic Cloud and the source was named SGR 0525-66; the event itself was named GRB 790305b, the first observed SGR megaflare.

Recent discoveries

Artist's impression of a gamma-ray burst and supernova powered by a magnetar Artist's impression of a gamma-ray burst and supernova powered by a magnetar.jpg
Artist's impression of a gamma-ray burst and supernova powered by a magnetar

On February 21, 2008, it was announced that NASA and researchers at McGill University had discovered a neutron star with the properties of a radio pulsar which emitted some magnetically powered bursts, like a magnetar. This suggests that magnetars are not merely a rare type of pulsar but may be a (possibly reversible) phase in the lives of some pulsars. [17] On September 24, 2008, ESO announced what it ascertained was the first optically active magnetar-candidate yet discovered, using ESO's Very Large Telescope. The newly discovered object was designated SWIFT J195509+261406. [18] On September 1, 2014, ESA released news of a magnetar close to supernova remnant Kesteven 79. Astronomers from Europe and China discovered this magnetar, named 3XMM J185246.6+003317, in 2013 by looking at images that had been taken in 2008 and 2009. [19] In 2013, a magnetar PSR J1745-2900 was discovered, which orbits the black hole in the Sagittarius A* system. This object provides a valuable tool for studying the ionized interstellar medium toward the Galactic Center. In 2018, the result of the merger of two neutron stars was determined to be a hypermassive magnetar. [20]

Known magnetars

On 27 December 2004, a burst of gamma rays from SGR 1806-20 passed through the Solar System (artist's conception shown). The burst was so powerful that it had effects on Earth's atmosphere, at a range of about 50,000 light years. SGR 1806-20 108530main cloudballPrint.jpg
On 27 December 2004, a burst of gamma rays from SGR 1806-20 passed through the Solar System (artist's conception shown). The burst was so powerful that it had effects on Earth's atmosphere, at a range of about 50,000 light years.

As of March 2016, 23 magnetars are known, with six more candidates awaiting confirmation. [6] A full listing is given in the McGill SGR/AXP Online Catalog. [6] Examples of known magnetars include:

Magnetar—SGR J1745-2900
Magnetar found very close to the supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*, at the center of the Milky Way galaxy

Bright supernovae

Unusually bright supernovae are thought to result from the death of very large stars as pair-instability supernovae (or pulsational pair-instability supernovae). However, recent research by astronomers [27] [28] has postulated that energy released from newly formed magnetars into the surrounding supernova remnants may be responsible for some of the brightest supernovae, such as SN 2005ap and SN 2008es. [29] [30] [31]

See also

Related Research Articles

Timeline of neutron stars, pulsars, supernovae, and white dwarfs

A soft gamma repeater (SGR) is an astronomical object which emits large bursts of gamma-rays and X-rays at irregular intervals. It is conjectured that they are a type of magnetar or, alternatively, neutron stars with fossil disks around them.

Superluminous supernova type of supernova explosion

A superluminous supernova, also known as a hypernova, is a type of stellar explosion with a luminosity 10 or more times higher than that of standard supernovae. Like supernovae, SLSNe seem to be produced by several mechanisms, which is readily revealed by their light-curves and spectra. There are multiple models for what conditions may produce an SLSN, including core collapse in particularly massive stars, millisecond magnetars, interaction with circumstellar material, or pair-instability supernovae.

Pulsar wind nebula nebula powered by the pulsar wind of a pulsar

A pulsar wind nebula, sometimes called a plerion, is a type of nebula found inside the shells of supernova remnants (SNRe) that is powered by pulsar winds generated by its central pulsar. These nebulae were discovered in 1976 as small depressions at radio wavelengths near the centre of supernova remnants. They have since been found to be X-ray emitters and are possibly gamma ray sources.

Pulsar highly magnetized, rapidly rotating neutron star or white dwarf

A pulsar is a highly magnetized rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. This radiation can be observed only when the beam of emission is pointing toward Earth, and is responsible for the pulsed appearance of emission. Neutron stars are very dense, and have short, regular rotational periods. This produces a very precise interval between pulses that ranges from milliseconds to seconds for an individual pulsar. Pulsars are believed to be one of the candidates for the source of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays.

Anomalous X-ray Pulsars (AXPs) are now widely believed to be magnetars—young, isolated, highly magnetized neutron stars. These energetic X-ray pulsars are characterized by slow rotation periods of ~2–12 seconds and large magnetic fields of ~1013–1015 gauss (1 to 100 gigateslas). There are currently (as of 2017) 12 confirmed and 2 candidate AXPs. The identification of AXPs with magnetars was motivated by their similarity to another enigmatic class of sources, the soft gamma repeaters.

SGR 1806-20 star

SGR 1806-20 is a magnetar, a type of neutron star with a very powerful magnetic field, that was discovered in 1979 and identified as a soft gamma repeater. SGR 1806-20 is located about 14.5 kiloparsecs (50,000 light-years) from Earth on the far side of the Milky Way galaxy in the constellation of Sagittarius. It has a diameter of no more than 20 kilometres (12 mi) and rotates on its axis every 7.5 seconds (30,000 km/h rotation speed at the surface). As of 2016, SGR 1806-20 is the most highly magnetized object ever observed, with a magnetic field over 1015 gauss (G) (1011 tesla) in intensity (compared to the Sun's 1–5 G and Earth's 0.25–0.65 G).

Radio-quiet neutron star

A radio-quiet neutron star is a neutron star that does not seem to emit radio emissions, but is still visible to Earth through electromagnetic radiation at other parts of the spectrum, particularly x-rays and gamma rays.

Gamma-ray burst progenitors types of celestial objects

Gamma-ray burst progenitors are the types of celestial objects that can emit gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). GRBs show an extraordinary degree of diversity. They can last anywhere from a fraction of a second to many minutes. Bursts could have a single profile or oscillate wildly up and down in intensity, and their spectra are highly variable unlike other objects in space. The near complete lack of observational constraint led to a profusion of theories, including evaporating black holes, magnetic flares on white dwarfs, accretion of matter onto neutron stars, antimatter accretion, supernovae, hypernovae, and rapid extraction of rotational energy from supermassive black holes, among others.

CXOU J164710.2-455216 Anomalous X-ray pulsar in Westerlund 1

CXOU J164710.2-455216 is an anomalous X-ray pulsar in the massive galactic open cluster Westerlund 1. It is the brightest X-ray source in the cluster, and was discovered in 2005 in observations made by the Chandra X-ray observatory. The Westerlund 1 cluster is believed to have formed in a single burst of star formation, implying that the progenitor star must have had a mass in excess of 40 solar masses. The fact that a neutron star was formed instead of a black hole implies that more than 95% of the star's original mass must have been lost before or during the supernova that produced the magnetar.

SGR 0525-66 is a soft gamma repeater (SGR), located in the Super-Nova Remnant (SNR) 0525-66.1, otherwise known as N49, in the Large Magellanic Cloud. It was the first soft gamma repeater discovered, and as of 2015, the only known located outside our galaxy.

SGR 1900+14 gamma-ray burst

SGR 1900+14 is a soft gamma repeater (SGR), located in the constellation of Aquila about 20,000 light-years away. It is assumed to be an example of an intensely magnetic star, known as a magnetar. It is thought to have formed after a fairly recent supernova explosion.

SGR 1627-41, is a soft gamma repeater (SGR), located in the constellation of Ara. It was discovered June 15, 1998 using the Burst and transient Source Experiment (BATSE) and was the first soft gamma repeater to be discovered since 1979. During a period of 6 weeks, the star bursted approximately 100 times, and then went quiet. The measured bursts lasted an average of 100 milliseconds, but ranged from 25 ms to 1.8 seconds. AGR 1627-41 is a persistent X-ray source. It is located at a distance of 11 kpc in the radio complex CTB 33, a star forming region that includes the supernova remnant G337.0-0.1.

SGR J1550-5418 is a soft gamma repeater (SGR), the sixth to be discovered, located in the constellation Norma. Long known as an X-ray source, it was noticed to have become active on 23 October 2008, and then after a relatively quiescent interval, became much more active on 22 January 2009. It has been observed by the Swift satellite, and by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, launched in 2008, as well as in X-ray and radio emission. It has been observed to emit intense bursts of gamma rays at a rate of up to several per minute. At its estimated distance of 30,000 light years, the most intense flares equal the total energy emission of the Sun in ~20 years.

SGR 0501+4516 is a soft gamma repeater (SGR), and is an ancient stellar remnant. Currently, the phenomenons of SGRs and the related Anomalous X-ray pulsars (AXP) are explained as arising from magnetars. SGR 0501+4516 is located approximately 15,000 light years from Earth and has a magnetic field 100 trillion times stronger than the Earth's.

Astrophysical X-ray source astronomical object emitting X-rays

Astrophysical X-ray sources are astronomical objects with physical properties which result in the emission of X-rays.

RRAT J1819-1458 is a Milky Way neutron star and the best studied of the class of rotating radio transients (RRATs) first discovered in 2006.

GRB 790305b is an event that took place on 5 March 1979. It was an extremely bright burst that was successfully localized to supernova remnant N49 in the Large Magellanic Cloud. This event is now interpreted as a magnetar giant flare, more related to SGR flares than "true" gamma-ray bursts. It is the first observed SGR megaflare, a specific type of short GRB. It has been associated with the pulsar PSR B0525-66.


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