Friday, September 17, 2010

Birth of a Quark Star

Quarks are elementary particles and they are a fundamental constituent of matter. For instance, a neutron is made up of one up-quark and two down-quarks, and a proton is made up of two up-quarks and one down-quark. Neutrons and protons then make up the nuclei of atoms. Quarks have never been studied individually because when two quarks move apart, the force between them increases until it becomes more energetically favorable at some point for a new quark-antiquark pair to appear out of the vacuum than for the two quarks to continue separating. The phenomenon whereby quarks cannot be individually isolated is called color confinement and the phenomenon whereby quark-antiquark particles can appear out of the vacuum is called hadronization.

A quark star is a type of exotic star that is made up of ultra-dense quark matter and they are even denser than neutron stars. Given sufficient pressure from a neutron star’s immense gravity, individual neutrons can break down into their constituent quarks and a neutron star can turn into an even more compact quark star. A typical quark star has roughly the mass of the Sun packed into a diameter of only around 10 kilometers and just a cubic centimeter of its ultra-dense material can have a mass of a few billion metric tons!

Gamma-ray bursts are the most energetic electromagnetic events known to occur in the universe and they emit titanic bursts of gamma-rays which last anywhere from milliseconds to several minutes. Gamma-ray bursts are believed to be narrow bipolar beams of incredibly intense radiation created during powerful supernova explosions and a typical gamma-ray burst produces as much energy in a few seconds as the Sun does over its entire 10 billion years lifespan!

There are two types of gamma-ray bursts – the long duration gamma-ray bursts and the less common short duration gamma-ray bursts. Long duration gamma-ray bursts last longer than 2 seconds and they are generally linked to the deaths of very massive stars. Additionally, long duration gamma-ray bursts are followed by bright and lingering afterglows. On the other hand, short duration gamma-ray bursts last less than 2 seconds and they produce very little afterglows as compared to long duration gamma-ray bursts. The true nature of short duration gamma-ray bursts still remains an enigma and the leading hypothesis is that these events originate from the coalescence of binary neutron stars.

A gamma-ray burst is generally characterized by an initial powerful blast of gamma-rays followed by an afterglow with a rapidly decaying intensity. In this article, I will only focus on the afterglows of long duration gamma-ray bursts and the observed plateau in the light curves of a number of these gamma-ray burst afterglows. Such a plateauing of the afterglow light curve of a gamma-ray burst can be attributed to the cooling behavior of a newly formed quark star.

Immediately after a gamma-ray burst, the newly formed quark star cools by emitting vast amounts of neutrinos and photons. This initial afterglow phase is characterized by a light curve with a gradually decaying intensity. The light curve of the afterglow then stops decaying and plateaus out with a constant intensity. This observed phenomenon can be explained by the solidification of the quark star as it undergoes a phase transition from liquid to solid. The latent heat released during the phase transition can provide a steady and constant supply of energy to power the afterglow of the gamma-ray burst. This is because the temperature of the central quark star will remain constant as it undergoes its phase transition.

After the phase transition, the light curve of the afterglow abruptly decays due to the extremely low heat capacity of the solid quark star. The entire phase transition of the quark star from liquid to solid occurs over a timescale of roughly 1000 seconds and the amount of energy generated from the phase transition alone is roughly equal to the total amount of energy the Sun gives off over a period of 10 billion years!

Therefore, the amount of energy produced during the phase transition of a quark star is sufficient and steady enough to produce the plateau in the light curve observed in the afterglow of a gamma-ray burst. Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful explosions in the universe and when they do occur, they blaze with the glory of a billion billion Suns. Nevertheless, as magnificent as they are, their fleeting nature makes them elusive and challenging to study.