Sciency Words: Magnetar

March 17, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

MAGNETAR

Space has a lot of cool ways to kill you. This one’s especially nifty! Magnetars are neutron stars with intensely powerful magnetic fields. Like, absurdly powerful magnetic fields.

Fly your spaceship near a magentar, and that overpowered magnetic field will start pulling the electrons off your atoms. This will kill you. It’ll destroy your spaceship too. Without those electrons, chemical bonds don’t work. Your molecules will unravel, and you and your ship will just disintegrate.

Even from a distance, magnetars are a menace. In 2004, a strong burst of gamma radiation washed over Earth, compressing our planet’s magnetic field and partially ionizing our atmosphere. That gamma radiation came from a magnetar on the other side of the galaxy.

If a magnetar could do that to us from so far away, just think what it must have done to any alien civilizations that happened to live closer. I can’t help but imagine there’s a vast dead zone on the other side of the galaxy, with magnetar SGR 1806-20 right in the middle.

The good news is that magnetars don’t last long. Their magnetic fields decay rapidly, so these raging monsters turn into regular neutron stars within a few thousand years. Also, while their outbursts of gamma rays and X-rays can affect our planet, there aren’t any magnetars close enough to Earth to really threaten us.

Oh wait. Yes there are. Sort of.