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The Universe’s Strongest Material is a Cosmic Lasagna

A new study suggests that the “nuclear pasta” found in neutron stars is 10 billion times stronger than steel

(NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)
smithsonian.com

Humans have looked for harder, stronger substances for millennia, replacing rock with iron, steel, composites and now graphene. But it may be awhile before we figure out how to use what a new study suggests is the strongest material in the universe, known as “nuclear pasta” and it’s found in the crusts of neutron stars, reports Brandon Specktor at LiveScience.

Just like campfires and goldfish, stars eventually die. If they are about the size of our sun or smaller they eventually burn up their fuel, swell into a red giant, then cool off into a relatively boring white dwarf. If they are larger than the sun, however, they go out in style. As they die, their immense gravity collapses them, setting off a giant supernova explosion. Depending on its size, the remaining core either collapses in on itself creating a black hole or forms a super-dense neutron star.

According to Bob Yirka at Phys.org, physicists have theorized that the material that makes up neutron stars is incredibly dense. While the diameter of these stars is about 12 miles across, they have a mass 1.4 times that of the sun. A single teaspoon would weigh a billion tons. It’s also believed that the material would be incredibly strong, perhaps the strongest in the universe. Researchers have also theorized that the outer crust of the neutron star would crystallize, surrounding a liquid core.

The densely packed protons and neutrons in that crust would take on novel shapes; researchers have proposed many such shapes may resemble members of the pasta family including gnocchi, lasagna and spaghetti. The question is, which is stronger, the material that makes up the outer crust or the “nuclear pasta” just below it?

To investigate, researchers ran a series of high-powered computer simulations on the pasta to understand how it behaves, they report in a paper accepted in the journal Physical Review Letters. What the team found is that the pasta is 10 billion times stronger than steel and, according to Yirka, is indeed stronger than the stuff on the crust.

“These simulations allowed me to calculate the strength of nuclear pasta,” lead author Matthew Caplan of McGill University tells Hannah Osborne at Newsweek. “The materials in neutron star crusts can't exist on earth, they only form when matter is under the kind of immense pressure that you can find on a neutron star, which is why we use computer simulations to study them.”

If we did bring just a spoonful of the material to Earth, it would create a massive nuclear explosion.

But the research isn’t just about finding super-strong exotic materials. Specktor at LiveScience reports that the simulation showed the pasta could layer up, lasagna-style, and form mountains on the surface of neutron stars. As the stars rotate, these mountains could create ripples in space time, otherwise known as gravitational waves. Such waves were detected for the first time in 2015 after two massive black holes bumped into one another. The waves from neutron stars, if they exist, would require more sensitive instruments than those currently available to detect.

Understanding the relative strengths of a neutron star’s crust versus its interior can tell us a lot about the enigmatic objects.

“Knowing the strength of the neutron star crust is like knowing the strength of rocks on earth; it tells you about how big earthquakes can be and how tall mountains can get,” Caplan tells Newsweek’s Osborne. “On a neutron star, those ‘starquakes’ or breaking events can release light while ‘neutron star mountains’ can make gravitational waves, which are both things astronomers would like to observe.”

The current paper looked at nuclear pasta that took on the lasagna shape, but Caplan says he hopes to investigate other pastabilities like spaghetti shapes.

Whatever the neutron noodles turn out to resemble, they’re not the only homage to Italian food in space. last year the Cassini probe found a delicious-looking piece of ravioli orbiting Saturn and the interstellar asteroid that passed by last year looks suspiciously like a breadstick.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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