Pulsar with widest orbit ever detected

May 7, 2015

Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

By Charles Blue

A team of highly determined high school students discovered a never-before-seen pulsar by painstakingly analyzing data from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT). Further observations by astronomers using the GBT revealed that this pulsar has the widest orbit of any around a neutron star and is part of only a handful of double neutron star systems.

This impressive find will help astronomers better understand how binary neutron star systems form and evolve.

Pulsars are rapidly spinning , the superdense remains of massive stars that have exploded as supernovas. As a spins, lighthouse-like beams of radio waves, streaming from the poles of its powerful magnetic field, sweep through space. When one of these beams sweeps across the Earth, radio telescopes can capture the pulse of radio waves.

“Pulsars are some of the most extreme objects in the universe,” said Joe Swiggum, a graduate student in physics and astronomy at West Virginia University in Morgantown and lead author on a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal explaining this result and its implications. “The students’ discovery shows one of these objects in a really unique set of circumstances.”

About 10 percent of known pulsars are in binary systems; the vast majority of these are found orbiting ancient white dwarf companion stars. Only a rare few orbit other neutron stars or main sequence stars like our Sun. The reason for this paucity of double neutron star systems, astronomers believe, is the process by which pulsars and all neutron stars form.

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3 comments on “Pulsar with widest orbit ever detected

  • …and another massive cosmic energy event:-


    Astronomers have witnessed two big blobs of plasma, shot into space by a black hole, cannoning into each other in a dramatic cosmic billiard-shot.

    The supermassive black hole sits at the heart of the sixth brightest galaxy in our sky, blasting out a jet of plasma at 98% of the speed of light.

    A fast-moving knot within that jet bore down on another, in a dazzling impact.

    It was captured in a series of images snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope, spanning 20 years.

    The discovery is reported in the journal Nature.

    “Something like this has never been seen before in an extragalactic jet,” said Dr Eileen Meyer of the Space Telescope Science Instititue (STScI) in Baltimore in the US. “This will allow us a very rare opportunity to see how the kinetic energy of the collision is dissipated into radiation.”

    The collision will unfold further in the coming decades, allowing scientists to continue watching it and learn more about these mysterious, spectacular jets – which can only rarely be seen in visible light.

    This particular jet was spotted in Hubble images from 1992; the time-lapse movie that revealed the collision comprises four images taken from 1994 to 2014.

    Astronomers believe the jet is made up of highly energised plasma, propelled into space by the supermassive black hole that forms the “active nucleus” of NGC 3862 – an elliptical galaxy 260 million light-years from Earth.

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