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Neutron star collision should have formed a black hole — but a ‘magnetar’ appeared instead

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On May 22, 2020, light from a titanic explosion deep in space reached Earth. The energy seen by astronomers told of the collision of a pair of neutron stars, creating a kilonova explosion. This event, releasing more energy in a half-second than our Sun will produce in 10 billion years, left a rare object behind in the debris.

When astronomers examined the eruption, they found evidence of a magnetar — an ultradense neutron star, roughly the size of a city, housing a powerful magnetic field.

I’m still going to need your insurance information…

The discovery — the first time a collision of neutron stars has ever been seen — was made through studies conducted in visible wavelengths of light, as well as infrared, radio, and X-ray frequencies.

The first light from the event, 7.6 billion light-years from Earth, was seen in the form of a highly-energetic short-gamma ray burst. These are gamma-ray bursts that last less than two seconds (longer GRBs are thought to be the result of the collapse of the core of a supermassive star).

Gamma rays have the highest frequency of all known forms of electromagnetic radiation. However, this display radiated energy throughout the electromagnetic spectrum.

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Typically, astronomers expect the collision of a pair of neutron stars to result in the near-instantaneous collapse of the dead stars into a black hole. However, this was not what astronomers found as they watched the aftermath of the GRB 200522A explosion.

“Our study shows that it’s possible that, for this particular short gamma-ray burst, the heavy object survived. Instead of collapsing into a black hole, it became a magnetar: A rapidly spinning neutron star that has large magnetic fields, dumping energy into its surrounding environment and creating the very bright glow that we see,” said Wen-fai Fong, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University.

In a champagne kilonova in the sky…