A new NASA mission is headed for the International Space Station next month to observe one of the strangest observable objects in the universe.
The mission launch will be on June 1, 2017.
Columbia University research scientist Slavko Bogdanov, who leads the NICER light curve modeling group, said: “As soon as you go below the surface of a neutron star, the pressures and densities rise extremely rapidly, and soon you’re in an environment that you can’t produce in any lab on Earth.”
The Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) will be installed aboard the space station as the first mission dedicated to studying neutron stars, a type of collapsed star that is so dense scientists are unsure how matter behaves deep inside it.
According to NASA, a neutron star begins its life as a star between about seven and 20 times the mass of our sun.
“When this type of star runs out of fuel, it collapses under its own weight, crushing its core and triggering a supernova explosion. What remains is an ultra-dense sphere only about 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, the size of a city, but with up to twice the mass of our sun squeezed inside. On Earth, one teaspoon of neutron star matter would weigh a billion tons.
“If you took Mount Everest and squeezed it into something like a sugar cube, that’s the kind of density we’re talking about,” said Keith Gendreau, the principal investigator for NICER at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The only object known to be denser than a neutron star is its dark cousin, the black hole. A black hole forms when a star more than approximately 20 times the mass of our sun collapses. A black hole’s powerful gravity establishes a barrier known as an event horizon, which prevents direct observation. So scientists turn to neutron stars to study matter at nature’s most extreme observable limit.