While astronomers have witnessed hundreds of events, called glitches, associated with sudden increases in the spin of neutron stars, the sudden spin-down caught them off guard.
A neutron star is the crushed core of a massive star that ran out of fuel, collapsed under its own weight, and exploded as a supernova. It's the closest thing to a black hole that astronomers can observe directly, compressing half a million times Earth's mass into a ball roughly the size of Manhattan Island. Matter within a neutron star is so dense that a teaspoonful would weigh about a billion tons on Earth.
Neutron stars possess two other important traits. They spin rapidly, ranging from a few rpm to as many as 43,000, comparable to the blades of a kitchen blender, and they boast magnetic fields a trillion times stronger than Earth's.
About two dozen neutron stars occasionally produce high-energy explosions that astronomers say require magnetic fields thousands of times stronger than expected. These exceptional objects, called magnetars, are routinely monitored by a McGill team led by Kaspi using Swift's X-Ray Telescope.
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