Astronomers using the 76-m Lovell radio telescope at the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory have discovered a very strange pulsar that helps explain how pulsars act as ‘cosmic clocks’ and confirms theories put forward 37 years ago to explain the way in which pulsars emit their regular beams of radio waves - considered to be one of the hardest problems in astrophysics. Their research, now published in Science Express, reveals a pulsar that is only ‘on’ for part of the time. The strange pulsar is spinning about its own axis and slows down 50% faster when it is ‘on’ compared to when it is ‘off’.
Pulsars are dense, highly magnetized neutron stars that are born in a violent explosion marking the death of massive stars. They act like cosmic lighthouses as they project a rotating beam of radio waves across the galaxy. Dr. Michael Kramer explains, "Pulsars are a physicist’s dream come true. They are made of the most extreme matter that we know of in the Universe, and their highly stable rotation makes them super-precise cosmic clocks. But, embarrassingly, we do not know how these clocks work. This discovery goes a long way towards solving this problem."
The research team, led by Dr. Michael Kramer, found a pulsar that is only periodically active. It appears as a normal pulsar for about a week and then “switches off” for about one month before emitting pulses again. The pulsar, called PSR B1931+24, is unique in this behaviour and affords astronomers an opportunity to compare its quiet and active phases. As it is quiet the majority of the time, it is difficult to detect, suggesting that there may be many other similar objects that have, so far, escaped detection.
Julia Maddock | alfa
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