Citizen scientists discover rare pulsar

Artist's impression of a pulsar

An artist's impression of a pulsar and the conical beams of radio energy it emits.

  • Rare pulsar found by “citizen scientists”
  • Part of the Einstein@Home physics program
  • Uses the idle time of home PCs to make discoveries

Three citizen scientists, a German man and an American couple, have been credited with the discovery of a rare radio pulsar hidden in data gathered by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Published today in the journal Science, the deep space discovery is the first of the international programme, Einstein@Home, which utilises the idle time of volunteers’ computers to search the Universe for neutron stars and radio pulsars.

The programme, which uses donated time from the home and office computers of 250,000 volunteers from 192 different countries around the world, is supported by an international consortium of pulsar astronomers.

One of these astronomers is Dr Ramesh Bhat from Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology, who considers the public engagement component of the discovery to be a great step forward.

“This discovery, through volunteer computing, demonstrates the importance of engaging the public in such large astronomy projects. It opens up news avenues for making astronomical discoveries,” he said.

A pulsar is the “dead” remnant core of a giant star that exploded at the end of its life. With its matter packed in at an incredible density, just one teaspoonful of pulsar matter has a mass of 5,500 million tonnes.

They also have incredibly powerful magnetic fields, and emit focused beams of radio energy that can be picked up on Earth by radio telescopes. As the pulsar spins, its radio beams repeatedly sweep across our field of view like a lighthouse, hence the term “pulsar”.

Discovered with home computers

Revealed with the help of computers owned by Chris and Helen Colvin from the US and Daniel Gebhardt from Germany, the new pulsar—called PSR J2007+2722—is a neutron star that rotates 41 times per second.

Arecibo Observatory

The giant dish of the Arecibo Observatory is used to pick up the radio patterns from pulsars.

It is in the Milky Way, approximately 17,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Vulpecula. Unlike most pulsars that spin as quickly and steadily, PSR J2007+2722 sits alone in space, and has no orbiting companion star.

“Such objects are very rare and it is fair to admit that we do not have a good understanding of how such objects form in the first place,” Bhat said.

Astronomers consider the finding especially interesting since it is likely to be a recycled pulsar that lost its companion. Alternatively it could be a young pulsar born with a lower-than-usual magnetic field.

“No matter what else we find out about it, this pulsar is bound to be extremely interesting for understanding the basic physics of neutron stars and how they form,” said Jim Cordes, the chair of the Einstein@Home consortium.

A combined effort

The discovery is a boost to the major ongoing international survey of pulsars that generated the data containing PSR J2007+2722.

Due to the huge amounts of data involved the survey relies on the enormous processing power of supercomputers around the world, including the Swinburne University supercomputer, as well as the home computers of thousands of participating volunteers.

Einstein@Home is based at the Centre for Gravitation and Cosmology at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute, Hannover).

“This is a thrilling moment for Einstein@Home and our volunteers. It proves that public participation can discover new things in our universe. I hope it inspires more people to join us to help find other secrets hidden in the data,” said Bruce Allen, leader of the project and Director at the Max Planck Institute.

Adapted from information issued by Swinburne University / NAIC – Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF.

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