Part-time pulsar yields new insight into inner workings of cosmic clocks
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.
Prof. Andrew Lyne points out that, “After the discovery of pulsars, theoreticians proposed that strong electric fields rip particles out of the neutron star surface into a surrounding magnetised cloud of plasma called the magnetosphere. But, for nearly 40 years, there had been no way to test whether our basic understanding was correct."
The University of Manchester astronomers were delighted when they found that this pulsar slows down more rapidly when the pulsar is on than when it is off. Dr. Christine Jordan points out the importance of this discovery, "We can clearly see that something hits the brakes when the pulsar is on.”
This breaking mechanism must be related to the radio emission and the processes creating it and the additional slow-down can be explained by a wind of particles leaving the pulsars magnetosphere and carrying away rotational energy. “Such a braking effect of the pulsar wind was expected but now, finally, we have observational evidence for it” adds Dr Duncan Lorimer.
The amount of braking can be related to the number of charges leaving the pulsar magnetosphere. Dr. Michael Kramer explains their surprise when it was found that the resulting number was within 2% of the theoretical predictions. "We were really shocked when we saw these numbers on our screens. Given the pulsar’s complexity, we never really expected the magnetospheric theory to work so well."
Prof. Andrew Lyne summarized the result: "It is amazing that, after almost 40 years, we have not only found a new, unusual, pulsar phenomenon but also a very unexpected way to confirm some fundamental theories about the nature of pulsars."
Julia Maddock | alfa
The most recent press releases about innovation >>>
Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:
Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.
A warming planet
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.
The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...
New technique promises tunable laser devices
Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...
Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!
When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...
For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.
Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...