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Short description: Type of neutron star with a strong magnetic field
Artist's conception of a magnetar, with magnetic field lines
Artist's conception of a powerful magnetar in a star cluster

A magnetar is a type of neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field (~109 to 1011 T, ~1013 to 1015 G).[1] The magnetic-field decay powers the emission of high-energy electromagnetic radiation, particularly X-rays and gamma rays.[2]

The existence of magnetars was proposed in 1992 by Robert Duncan and Christopher Thompson.[3] Their proposal sought to explain the properties of transient sources of gamma rays, now known as soft gamma repeaters (SGRs).[4][5] Over the following decade, the magnetar hypothesis became widely accepted, and was extended to explain anomalous X-ray pulsars (AXPs). (As of July 2021), 24 confirmed magnetars were known.[6]

It has been suggested that magnetars are the source of fast radio bursts (FRB), in particular as a result of findings in 2020 by scientists using the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope.[7]


Like other neutron stars, magnetars are around 20 kilometres (12 mi) in diameter, and have a mass of about 1.4 solar masses. They are formed by the collapse of a star with a mass 10–25 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 more slowly in comparison. Most observed magnetars rotate once every two to ten seconds,[8] whereas typical neutron stars, observed as radio pulsars, rotate one to ten times per second.[9] 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 compared to other celestial bodies. 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.[8]

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.[10]

Neutron Star Types (24 June 2020)

Magnetic field

Magnetars are characterized by their extremely powerful magnetic fields of ~109 to 1011 T.[6] These magnetic fields are a hundred million times as strong as any man-made magnet,[11] and about a trillion times as powerful as the field surrounding Earth.[12] 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 1,000 km due to the strong magnetic field distorting the electron clouds of the subject's constituent atoms, rendering the chemistry of known lifeforms impossible.[13] At a distance of halfway from Earth to the moon, an average distance between the Earth and the Moon being 384,400 km (238,900 miles), a magnetar could wipe information from the magnetic stripes of all credit cards on Earth.[14] (As of 2020), they are the most powerful magnetic objects detected throughout the universe.[10][15]

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."[4] In a field of about 105 teslas atomic orbitals deform into rod shapes. At 1010 teslas, a hydrogen atom becomes 200 times as narrow as its normal diameter.[4]

Origins of magnetic fields

The dominant theory of the strong fields of magnetars is that it results from a magnetohydrodynamic dynamo process in the turbulent, extremely dense conducting fluid that exists before the neutron star settles into its equilibrium configuration.[16] 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.[17] But another theory is that they simply result from the collapse of stars with unusually strong magnetic fields.[18]


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.

In a supernova, a star collapses to a neutron star, and its magnetic field increases dramatically in strength through conservation of magnetic flux. Halving a linear dimension increases the magnetic field strength 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.[19] It is estimated that about one in ten supernova explosions results in a magnetar rather than a more standard neutron star or pulsar.[20]

1979 discovery

On March 5, 1979, a few months after the successful dropping of Landers into the atmosphere of Venus, the two uncrewed Soviet spaceprobes Venera 11 and 12, then in heliocentric orbit, 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.[4]

Eleven seconds later, Helios 2, a NASA probe, itself in orbit around the Sun, was saturated by the blast of radiation. It soon hit Venus, where the Pioneer Venus Orbiter's detectors were overcome by the wave. Shortly thereafter the gamma rays inundated the detectors of three U.S. Department of Defense Vela satellites, the Soviet Prognoz 7 satellite, and the Einstein Observatory, all orbiting Earth. Before exiting the solar system the radiation was detected by the International Sun–Earth Explorer in halo orbit.

This was the strongest wave of extra-solar gamma rays ever detected at over 100 times as intense as any previously known burst. Given the speed of light and its detection by several widely dispersed spacecraft, the source of the gamma radiation could be triangulated to within an accuracy of approximately 2 arcseconds.[21] The direction of the source corresponded with the remnants of a star that had gone supernova around 3000 BCE.[10] 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[22]

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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25] 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 temporary result of the merger of two neutron stars was determined to be a hypermassive magnetar, which shortly collapsed into a black hole.[26]

In April 2020, a possible link between fast radio bursts (FRBs) and magnetars was suggested, based on observations of SGR 1935+2154, a likely magnetar located in the Milky Way galaxy.[27][28][29][30][31]

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.

(As of July 2021), 24 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:

  • SGR 0525−66, in the Large Magellanic Cloud, located about 163,000 light-years from Earth, the first found (in 1979)
  • SGR 1806−20, located 50,000 light-years from Earth on the far side of the Milky Way in the constellation of Sagittarius and the most magnetized object known.
  • SGR 1900+14, located 20,000 light-years away in the constellation Aquila. After a long period of low emissions (significant bursts only in 1979 and 1993) it became active in May–August 1998, and a burst detected on August 27, 1998, was of sufficient power to force NEAR Shoemaker to shut down to prevent damage and to saturate instruments on BeppoSAX, WIND and RXTE. On May 29, 2008, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope discovered a ring of matter around this magnetar. It is thought that this ring formed in the 1998 burst.[32]
  • SGR 0501+4516 was discovered on 22 August 2008.[33]
  • 1E 1048.1−5937, located 9,000 light-years away in the constellation Carina. The original star, from which the magnetar formed, had a mass 30 to 40 times that of the Sun.
  • (As of September 2008), ESO reports identification of an object which it has initially identified as a magnetar, SWIFT J195509+261406, originally identified by a gamma-ray burst (GRB 070610).[24]
  • CXO J164710.2-455216, located in the massive galactic cluster Westerlund 1, which formed from a star with a mass in excess of 40 solar masses.[34][35][36]
  • SWIFT J1822.3 Star-1606 discovered on 14 July 2011 by Italian and Spanish researchers of CSIC at Madrid and Catalonia. This magnetar contrary to previsions has a low external magnetic field, and it might be as young as half a million years.[37]
  • 3XMM J185246.6+003317, discovered by international team of astronomers, looking at data from ESA's XMM-Newton X-ray telescope.[38]
  • SGR 1935+2154, emitted a pair of luminous radio bursts on 28 April 2020. There was speculation that these may be galactic examples of fast radio bursts.
  • Swift J1818.0-1607, X-ray burst detected March 2020, is one of five known magnetars that are also radio pulsars. By its time of discovery, it may be only 240 years old.[39][40]
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[41][42] 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.[43][44]<ref>{{cite journal

See also


  1. Kaspi, Victoria M.; Beloborodov, Andrei M. (2017). "Magnetars". Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 55 (1): 261–301. doi:10.1146/annurev-astro-081915-023329. Bibcode2017ARA&A..55..261K. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ward; Brownlee, p.286
  3. Duncan, Robert C.; Thompson, Christopher (1992). "Formation of Very Strongly Magnetized Neutron Stars: Implications for Gamma-Ray Bursts". Astrophysical Journal Letters 392: L9. doi:10.1086/186413. Bibcode1992ApJ...392L...9D. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Kouveliotou, C.; Duncan, R. C.; Thompson, C. (February 2003). "Magnetars". Scientific American; Page 41.
  5. Thompson, Christopher; Duncan, Robert C. (July 1995). "The soft gamma repeaters as very strongly magnetized neutron stars - I. radiative mechanisms for outbursts". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 275 (2): 255–300. doi:10.1093/mnras/275.2.255. Bibcode1995MNRAS.275..255T. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 "McGill SGR/AXP Online Catalog". 
  7. Starr, Michelle (1 June 2020). "Astronomers Just Narrowed Down The Source of Those Powerful Radio Signals From Space". 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Kaspi, V. M. (April 2010). "Grand unification of neutron stars". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) 107 (16): 7147–7152. doi:10.1073/pnas.1000812107. PMID 20404205. Bibcode2010PNAS..107.7147K. 
  9. Condon, J. J.; Ransom, S. M.. "Pulsar Properties (Essential radio Astronomy)". National Radio Astronomy Observatory. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Kouveliotou, C.; Duncan, R. C.; Thompson, C. (February 2003). "Magnetars ". Scientific American; Page 36.
  11. "HLD user program, at Dresden High Magnetic Field Laboratory". 
  12. Naeye, Robert (February 18, 2005). "The Brightest Blast". Sky & Telescope. 
  13. Duncan, Robert. "'MAGNETARS', SOFT GAMMA REPEATERS & VERY STRONG MAGNETIC FIELDS". University of Texas. 
  14. Wanjek, Christopher (February 18, 2005). "Cosmic Explosion Among the Brightest in Recorded History". NASA. 
  15. Dooling, Dave (May 20, 1998). ""Magnetar" discovery solves 19-year-old mystery". Science@NASA Headline News. 
  16. Thompson, Christopher; Duncan, Robert C. (1993). "Neutron Star Dynamos and the Origins of Pulsar Magnetism". Astrophysical Journal 408: 194–217. doi:10.1086/172580. Bibcode1993ApJ...408..194T. 
  17. Price, Daniel J.; Rosswog, Stephan (May 2006). "Producing Ultrastrong Magnetic Fields in Neutron Star Mergers". Science 312 (5774): 719–722. doi:10.1126/science.1125201. PMID 16574823. Bibcode2006Sci...312..719P. Retrieved 2012-07-13.  open access
  18. Zhou, Ping; Vink, Jacco; Safi-Harb, Samar; Miceli, Marco (September 2019). "Spatially resolved X-ray study of supernova remnants that host magnetars: Implication of their fossil field origin". Astronomy & Astrophysics 629 (A51): 12. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201936002. Bibcode2019A&A...629A..51Z.  open access
  19. Kouveliotou, p.237
  20. Popov, S. B.; Prokhorov, M. E. (April 2006). "Progenitors with enhanced rotation and the origin of magnetars". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 367 (2): 732–736. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2966.2005.09983.x. Bibcode2006MNRAS.367..732P.  open access
  21. Cline, T. L., Desai, U. D., Teegarden, B. J., Evans, W. D., Klebesadel, R. W., Laros, J. G. (Apr 1982). "Precise source location of the anomalous 1979 March 5 gamma-ray transient". The Astrophysical Journal 255: L45–L48. doi:10.1086/183766. Bibcode1982ApJ...255L..45C.  open access
  22. "Biggest Explosions in the Universe Powered by Strongest Magnets". 
  23. Shainblum, Mark (21 February 2008). "Jekyll-Hyde neutron star discovered by researchers"]. McGill University. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 "The Hibernating Stellar Magnet: First Optically Active Magnetar-Candidate Discovered". ESO. 23 September 2008. 
  25. "Magnetar discovered close to supernova remnant Kesteven 79". ESA/XMM-Newton/ Ping Zhou, Nanjing University, China. 1 September 2014. 
  26. van Putten, Maurice H P M; Della Valle, Massimo (2018-09-04). "Observational evidence for extended emission to GW170817" (in en). Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters 482 (1): L46–L49. doi:10.1093/mnrasl/sly166. ISSN 1745-3925. Bibcode2019MNRAS.482L..46V. 
  27. Timmer, John (4 November 2020). "We finally know what has been making fast radio bursts - Magnetars, a type of neutron star, can produce the previously enigmatic bursts.". Ars Technica. 
  28. Cofield, Calla; Andreoli, Calire; Reddy, Francis (4 November 2020). "NASA Missions Help Pinpoint the Source of a Unique X-ray, Radio Burst". NASA. 
  29. Andersen, B. (4 November 2020). "A bright millisecond-duration radio burst from a Galactic magnetar". Nature 587 (7832): 54–58. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2863-y. PMID 33149292. Bibcode2020Natur.587...54C. Retrieved 5 November 2020. 
  30. Drake, Nadia (5 May 2020). "'Magnetic Star' Radio Waves Could Solve the Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts - The surprise detection of a radio burst from a neutron star in our galaxy might reveal the origin of a bigger cosmological phenomenon". Scientific American. 
  31. Starr, Michelle (1 May 2020). "Exclusive: We Might Have First-Ever Detection of a Fast Radio Burst in Our Own Galaxy". 
  32. "Strange Ring Found Around Dead Star". 
  33. "NASA - European Satellites Probe a New Magnetar". 
  34. "Chandra :: Photo Album :: Westerlund 1 :: 02 Nov 05". 
  35. "Magnetar Formation Mystery Solved?". 
  36. Wood, Chris. "Very Large Telescope solves magnetar mystery" GizMag, 14 May 2014. Accessed: 18 May 2014.
  37. A new low-B magnetar
  38. Rea, N.; Viganò, D.; Israel, G. L.; Pons, J. A.; Torres, D. F. (2014-01-01). "3XMM J185246.6+003317: Another Low Magnetic Field Magnetar". The Astrophysical Journal Letters 781 (1): L17. doi:10.1088/2041-8205/781/1/L17. ISSN 0004-637X. Bibcode2014ApJ...781L..17R. 
  39. "A Cosmic Baby Is Discovered, and It's Brilliant". 
  40. Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (8 January 2021). "Chandra observations reveal extraordinary magnetar". 
  41. Kasen, D.; L. Bildsten. (1 Jul 2010). "Supernova Light Curves Powered by Young Magnetars". Astrophysical Journal 717 (1): 245–249. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/717/1/245. Bibcode2010ApJ...717..245K. 
  42. Woosley, S. (20 Aug 2010). "Bright Supernovae From Magnetar Birth". Astrophysical Journal Letters 719 (2): L204–L207. doi:10.1088/2041-8205/719/2/L204. Bibcode2010ApJ...719L.204W. 
  43. Inserra, C.; Smartt, S. J.; Jerkstrand, A.; Valenti, S.; Fraser, M.; Wright, D.; Smith, K.; Chen, T.-W. et al. (June 2013). "Super Luminous Ic Supernovae: catching a magnetar by the tail". The Astrophysical Journal 770 (2): 128. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/770/2/128. Bibcode2013ApJ...770..128I. 
  44. Queen's University, Belfast (16 October 2013). "New light on star death: Super-luminous supernovae may be powered by magnetars". 
Books and literature
  • Ward, Peter Douglas; Brownlee, Donald (2000). Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe. Springer. ISBN 0-387-98701-0. 
  • Kouveliotou, Chryssa (2001). The Neutron Star-Black Hole Connection. Springer. ISBN 1-4020-0205-X. 
  • Mereghetti, S. (2008). "The strongest cosmic magnets: soft gamma-ray repeaters and anomalous X-ray pulsars". Astronomy and Astrophysics Review 15 (4): 225–287. doi:10.1007/s00159-008-0011-z. Bibcode2008A&ARv..15..225M. 

External links