Neutron stars and pulsars

One of my favorite science-inspired crafts is making pulsar models. In this activity, participants learn how neutron stars are formed, what makes some neutron stars into pulsars, and how NASA is developing technology to use pulsars for interplanetary “GPS” navigation (pdf). I was introduced to this craft idea by Prof. Jason Hessels at the University of Amsterdam, and I’ve since done this activity at the MSU SciFest in 2019, SciFest for schools in 2020, and as a video presentation with the Abrams Planetarium.

A pulsar, a type of neutron star, is the dead ultra-compact remnant of a massive star dying and undergoing a supernova. Neutron stars have as much mass as the Sun but are only about 15 miles across, which makes their cores the densest-known form of matter in the universe. One teaspoon of a neutron star has a much mass as the whole Earth! Pulsars are different from other neutron stars in that they have magnetic fields more than one trillion times as strong as the Earth’s magnetic field. The north and south magnetic poles shine lighthouse-like pulses of light as the pulsar rotates up to hundreds of times per second. Some pulsars are in a binary orbit with a regular star like our Sun, and they slowly drain and eat the matter from the regular star over hundreds of millions of years in a process called accretion. Astronomers have observed about 2,000 pulsars to date, but estimate that there should be hundreds of millions of pulsars and other neutron stars in our Milky Way galaxy. By analyzing radio, X-ray, and gamma-ray light from pulsars, astronomers are able to learn more about the physics of these extreme environments that are not reproducible on Earth.

I recommend this Crash Course Astronomy video for learning more about neutron stars!

Abbie holding a craft model of a pulsar.
Photo credit: A. Jaodand

Please contact me if you are interested in having this as a group activity or a booth at your science expo or demo day, or if you would like to have a more in-depth art workshop inspired by neutron stars!

Slides for the introduction I gave for the pulsar workshop at the MSU Broad Museum Art Lab.

Header image: The Crab pulsar and supernova remnant in X-ray, optical, and infrared light. Image credit: NASA/CXC/ESA/JPL-Caltech.