As I understand, neutron stars are born as extremely bright, extremely fast spinning cores of stars dying in a supernova. However, several websites tell me that within a course of a few years, the surface temperature of a neutron star falls from several trillion kelvin to only a few million kelvins. Furthermore, with the passage of time, the spinning speed of the neutron star also decreases considerably.

This raises the question: what is the final destiny of a neutron star? Does it always stay so horribly magnetic, hot and fast spinning or does it keep degrading into some form of cold, extremely dense star core with a much weaker magnetic field or do some of its features (specially the magnetic field strength and spin) stay at hightened levels forever (or at least several hundreds of billions of years)?


2 Answers 2


Neutron stars have extremely small heat capacities. That is because they consist largely of degenerate fermions and the heat capacity is further suppressed if, as expected, those fermions are in a superfluid state.

This has (at least) two consequences:

(a) they cool down extremely rapidly - neutrino emission processes are highly effective, in the first $10^5$ years or so of a neutron star's life, at reducing its interior temperature to a few $10^7$ K and the surface temperature to $<10^6$ K. After that, the dominant cooling process is photons emitted from the surface ($\propto T^4$) and neutron stars rapidly fade from view thereafter.

(b) However, the low heat capacity also means that it is easy to keep a neutron star hot if you have any way of adding energy to it - such as viscous dissipation of rotation by friction, accretion from the interstellar medium or ohmic heating by magnetic fields.

No isolated neutron star surfaces have been measured with temperatures much below $10^6$ K - i.e. all observed isolated neutron stars are at young ages. The situation is summarised in section 5.7 of Yakovlev & Pethick (2004). Without any reheating, a neutron star would reach 100K in only a billion years - this is already utterly invisible. The reheating mechanisms must play some role for older neutron stars, but as Yakovlev & Pethick state: "Unfortunately, no reliable observational data on the thermal states of such stars are available". In conclusion, nobody really knows at the moment what the long-term ($>10^6$ years) fate of neutron stars is in terms of their temperature.

The situation with regard to spin and magnetic field is more secure. There are not the same mechanisms available to spin-up an isolated neutron star or regenerate their magnetic fields. Both are expected to decay with time and indeed the spin-down rate and magnetic field strength are intimately connected, because the spin-down mechanism is the emission of magnetic dipole radiation. The magnetic field decays through the generation of currents that then ohmically dissipate (providing a source of heat) or perhaps more rapidly via currents generated by the Hall effect or through ambipolar diffusion.

For pure magnetic dipole radiation, one predicts $\dot{\Omega} \propto \Omega^3$. For typical surface magnetic field strengths of $10^8$ T, pulsars spin down to periods of around a few seconds in less than a million years, at which point the "pulsar activity" switches off and we can't see them any more, unless they are in binary systems and accreting matter in order to spin them up again. Unfortunately, there is very little observational evidence to pin down how fast magnetic fields decay (because we don't see old, isolated neutron stars!). The decay of B-field cannot be very fast, certainly timescales are longer than $10^5$ years. Theoretical estimates of B-field decay timescales are more like billions of years. If this theory is right then neutron stars would continue to spin down very rapidly even after the pulsar mechanism has ceased.


This raises the question: what is the final destiny of a neutron star?

Neutron stars cannot stay hot forever. Neutron stars cool because they radiate. (This is called radiational cooling.) Except for their gravitational field which distorts spacetime in the vicinity of a neutron star, most lone neutron stars slowly fade away over time, eventually becoming essentially invisible. One way of detecting those cold, lone neutron stars is to observe the gravitational lensing of stars behind them.

With regard to magnetic field and rotation, those too drop over time. A neutron star's rotation is what creates the magnetic field, but this magnetic field drains the rotation rate.

An alternate fate for neutron stars is to undergo gravitational collapse and form a black hole. This can happen in a number of ways. A massive neutron star can undergo collapse as a result of its slowing rotation rate. The initial rapid rotation staves off gravitational collapse, but that no longer works when the neutron star's rotation rate drops.

Some neutron stars are not isolated. They are instead members of multiple star systems. Neutron stars can draw material from a partner star and eventually become massive enough to undergo collapse. Finally, a few neutron stars orbit one another closely. The discover of this, the Hulse-Taylor binary, led to the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics. Those closely orbiting neutron stars emit gravitational waves, thereby causing the orbit to decay. Those neutron stars eventually collide, once again resulting in a gravitational collapse.

  • $\begingroup$ Considering that white dwarfs would take potentially hundreds of billions of years to convert into a black dwarf, how long would it take a newly born neutron star to die off as a lump of cold, non-spinning mass with magnetic field barely comparable to that of our sun? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 5:22
  • $\begingroup$ Why do you say most neutron stars are alone? Aren't most young pulsars isolated? Obviously old pulsars are by definition in binary systems, but these are rare, not representative. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 8:28
  • $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries -- It was an assumption, perhaps unjustified, based on the fact that most star systems are binaries (ore more). That said, a supernova that creates a neutron star in a binary system might eject a companion star. OTOH, a number of binary pulsars have been discovered. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ Most young pulsars are isolated and moving at high speeds. That is because supernovae explosions (especially in binary systems) are not thought to be symmetric. Yes, there are a few binary pulsars with complicated histories. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries -- I changed "many neutron stars are not alone" to "some neutron stars are not isolated" and added detail on the Hulse-Taylor binary. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 11:33

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