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Observations of the kilonova. Credit: P.K. Blanchard/ E. Berger/ Pan-STARRS/DECam.
We don't really understand neutron stars. Oh, we know that they are – they're the leftover remnants of some of the most massive stars in the universe – but revealing their inner workings is a little bit tricky, because the physics keeping them alive is only poorly understood.
While - Neutron - Stars - Quantum - Guts
But every once in a while two neutron stars smash together, and when they do, they tend to blow up, spewing their quantum guts all over space. Depending on the internal structure and composition of the neutron stars, the "ejecta" (the polite scientific term for astronomical projectile vomit) will look different to us Earth-bound observers, giving us a gross but potentially powerful way to understand these exotic creatures.
As you might have guessed it, neutron stars are made of neutrons. Well, mostly. They also have some protons swimming around inside of them, which is important for later so I hope you remember that.
Neutron - Stars - Cores - Stars - Stars
Neutron stars are the leftover cores of some really big stars. When those giant stars near the end of their lives, they start fusing lighter elements into iron and nickel. The gravitational weight of the rest of the star continues to smash those atoms together, but those fusion reactions no longer produce excess energy, which means that nothing prevents the star from continuing to disastrously collapse in on itself.
In the core, the pressures and densities become so extreme that random electrons get shoved inside protons, turning them into neutrons. Once this process completes (which takes less than a dozen minutes) this giant ball of neutrons finally has the wherewithal to resist further collapse. The rest of the star bounces off that newly-forged core and blows up in a beautiful supernova explosion, leaving behind the core: the neutron star.
So like I said, neutron stars...
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