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Beta Decay

In Neutron stars3

The decay of Carbon-14

into Nitrogen-14, a
phenomenon useful in
carbon dating, is an
example of beta-minus
Internal Conversion
Electron Spectroscopy
Auger Electron
Spectroscopy (Auger
spectroscopy or AES: It is
a surface specific
technique utilising the
emission of low energy
electrons in the Auger
process and is one of the
most commonly employed
surface analytical
techniques for
determining the
composition of the surface
layers of a sample. 5

Internal Conversion
Auger Electrons


The dominant luminous

component in a cluster of
galaxies is the 107 to 108
kelvin intracluster
medium. The emission
from the intracluster
medium is characterized
by thermal
bremsstrahlung. This
radiation is in the energy
range of X-rays and can be
easily observed with
space-based telescopes
such as Chandra X-ray
Observatory, XMMNewton, ROSAT, ASCA,
and future missions like
IXO [2] and Astro-H [3].
Bremsstrahlung is also the
dominant emission

Auger Depth Profiling,

Scanning Auger
In an X-ray tube, electrons
are accelerated in a
vacuum by an electric
field and shot into a piece
of metal called the
"target". X-rays are
emitted as the electrons
slow down (decelerate) in
the metal. The output
spectrum consists of a
continuous spectrum of Xrays, with additional sharp
peaks at certain energies
(see graph on right). The
continuous spectrum is
due to bremsstrahlung,
while the sharp peaks are
characteristic X-rays
associated with the atoms
in the target.

mechanism for H II regions

at radio wavelengths.
Alpha Decay
Spontaneous Fission


Stars are powered by

nuclear fusion in their
cores, mostly converting
hydrogen into helium.
Gamma rays are produced
by nuclear fusion in stars
including the Sun (such as
the CNO cycle), but are
absorbed or inelastically
scattered by the stellar
material before escaping
and are not observable
from Earth.
Extremely powerful bursts
of high-energy radiation
referred to as long
duration gamma-ray
bursts, of energies higher
than can be produced by
radioactive decay. These
bursts of gamma rays,
thought to be due to the
collapse of stars called
hypernovae1, are the most
powerful events so far
discovered in the cosmos.

Neutron Induced Fission :

Nuclear Reactors (Uranium
Chain Reaction)
1. Gamma decay of
radionuclides and
secondary radiation
from atmospheric
interactions with
cosmic ray
2. Rare terrestrial
natural sources
produce gamma
rays that are not of
a nuclear origin,
such as lightning
strikes and
terrestrial gammaray flashes.
3. Gamma rays are
used to kill cancer
cells, to sterilise
medical equipment
and in radioactive

Pulsars are the original

gamma-ray astronomy
point sources.
Neutron Production

A special class of binary

stars is the X-ray binaries,
so-called because they
emit X-rays.
X-ray Pulsars 2
Many things in deep space
give off X-rays. Many stars
are in binary star systems
- which means that two
stars orbit each other.
When one of these stars is
a black hole or a neutron

X-rays for medical

diagnostic procedures or
for research purposes are
produced in a standard
way: by accelerating
electrons with a high
voltage and allowing them
to collide with a metal
The energetic charged
particles from the Sun that
cause aurora also energize
electrons in the Earth's

star, material is pulled off

the normal star. This
materials spirals into the
black hole or neutron star
and heats up to very high
temperatures. When
something is heated to
over a million degrees, it
will give off X-rays.

magnetosphere. These
electrons move along the
Earth's magnetic field and
eventually strike the
Earth's ionosphere,
causing the X-ray

The Sun also emits X-rays.

Supernovae emit X-rays.

A hypernova (pl. hypernovae or hypernovas) is a type of star explosion with an

energy substantially higher than that of standard supernovae.

Magnetospheric Emission: Like gamma-ray pulsars, X-ray pulsars can be

produced when high-energy electrons interact in the magnetic field regions above
the neutron star's magnetic poles. Pulsars seen this way, whether in the radio,
optical, X-ray, or gamma-ray, are often referred to as "spin-powered pulsars,"
because the ultimate source of energy comes from the neutron star's rotation. The
eventual loss of rotational energy results in a slowing of the pulsar spin period.

Cooling Neutron Stars: When a neutron star is first formed in a supernova, its
surface is extremely hot (more than 1 million degrees). Over time, the surface cools.
While the surface is still hot enough, it can be seen with X-ray telescopes. If some
parts of the neutron star are hotter than others, such as the magnetic poles, then
pulses of thermal X-rays from the neutron star surface can be seen as the hot spots
pass through our line of sight. Some pulsars, including Geminga (see above), show
both thermal and magnetospheric pulses.

Accretion: If a neutron star is in a binary system with a normal star, the powerful
gravitational field of the neutron star can pull material from the surface of the
normal star. As this material spirals around the neutron star, it is funneled by the
magnetic field toward the neutron star magnetic poles. In the process, the material
is heated until it becomes hot enough to radiate X-rays. As the neutron star spins,
these hot regions pass through the line of sight from Earth and X-ray telescopes see
these as X-ray pulsars. Because the gravitational pull on the material is the basic
source of energy for this emission, these are often called "accretion-powered

In a neutron star there are mostly "free" neutrons and the question then is why they don't all
beta decay into electrons and protons?
Well, some of them do, but the point is that when the electron (or proton, there are equal numbers
of each) numbers build up then they become degenerate (meaning no more than two electrons
can occupy the same energy state and all energy states are filled up to a "Fermi energy" which
increases with electron density) and their Fermi-energies increase. At some threshold number
density, their Fermi energies will exceed the maximum energy of the particles that can be
produced by beta-decaying neutrons. At that point beta decay pretty much stops because there
are no available states that can be filled by the decay electron/proton and an equilibrium is set up
between occasional beta decays and inverse beta decays such that the Fermi energies of the
species are related by

It isn't the case that this is just an equilibrium condition where half the neutrons in a neutron star
will decay in 10 mins but be replaced by inverse beta decay at the same rate. The beta decay and
inverse beta decay reactions are heavily suppressed (at least when the neutron to proton ratio is
>8) because it is not possible (in degenerate gases) to simultaneously conserve both energy and
momentum in these reactions once the equilibrium state has been achieved, and so other
processes involving bystander particles (modified URCA process, MURCA) have to be invoked,
which are much less efficient.
A quick calculation is highly illuminating. If the MURCA process operates, this generates a
neutrino luminosity of about 1033
W in a typical neutron star (Friman and Maxwell 1979, ApJ, 232, 541) at interior temperatures of

109K. Each neutrino/anti-neutrino has an energy kT and there are 1057 neutrons in a
neutron star. For each beta decay of a neutron in the MURCA process, a neutrino and an antineutrino are produced; hence the lifetime of a typical neutron is 31010 seconds.

Neutrons in atomic nuclei are very stable, but free neutrons outside a nucleus will decay in a
proton and electron (and technically a neutrino) in about 15 minutes through beta decay. In other
words neutrons = electrons + protons. The reason normal matter isn't comprised entirely of
neutrons is electron degeneracy pressure. If you've ever taken chemistry, you're familiar with the
Pauli exclusion principle that dictates where an electron may be in the shell of an atom. The
abbreviated version is two electrons can't occupy the same place, so they fill themselves up
orderly in shells. If you try and squish matter really tightly, this in ability to be in the same place
at the same time actually acts like a force holding the atoms together. This is called electron
degeneracy pressure and is what supports a white dwarf together against gravity.
In a neutron star gravity has overcome electron degeneracy pressure allowing the protons and
electrons to combine into neutrons. Now the force holding the star together against gravity is the
neutron degeneracy pressure. Neutrons, like electrons, are fermions, and two neutrons may not
be in the same state, and this neutron crowding provides a supportive force against the intense
gravitational pressure. As I alluded to above the details are more complicated, but it's safe to stay
we will likely never be able to simulate the states of matter in a neutron star on the Earth.