by Rachel Barber
It's a neutron star, he says to me, eyes always up at the night sky. We know they exist by what they emit.
Nebulas and pulsars and white dwarfs and neutron stars--Emitt only ever speaks of lights in space. Looking out from the front stoop, where he sits on the rock of the steps, he takes in the universe one blink at a time. Then he pops it back out at you in words.
Sometimes by what they take in, too, he says. If it's a binary system.
I scratch my head at that, the hair a fuzz against my palm. I have one more night in Grantham--tomorrow is Japan. Yeah, Emitt, I guess so.
A neutron star in its binary system may absorb matter from its partner star. That's what he means to say, which I know because he's said it a thousand times before. Every night, actually, when he sets himself down on the stone and stargazes for an hour or two, peering up at the deep blue like it's all brand-new.
I've spotted the glow myself. Spurred by the neutron's fierce gravitational field, the material streams from the lighter star to its smaller, but denser, neighbor. It runs right to the neutron's magnetic poles, boiling so hot in the action of accretion that the matter spouts X-rays out into space--X-rays we can "see" hundreds and thousands of light years away, on Earth. Stick an X-ray detector on a satellite and boom! You have a picture from thousands of years ago of the interaction between two stars. Brilliant!
I want to tell him I'm heading out tomorrow, moving to the other side of the globe for deployment. My eyes hit the round top of his head. Yeah, Emitt, you saw a lot at NASA.
He laughs; it's not quite a wheeze. I SEE a lot at NASA. It's not like I don't drive down to Washington every morning.