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 neutron stars, the superdense remains of massive stars that have exploded as supernovas. As a pulsar 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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