A slow-motion movie of the Crab Pulsar taken at 800 nm wavelength using a Lucky Imaging camera from Cambridge University, showing the bright pulse and fainter interpulse.
Video of the Vela pulsar in X-ray light
A pulsar (portmanteau of pulsating star) is a highly magnetized, rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. This radiation can only be observed when the beam of emission is pointing toward the Earth, much the way a lighthouse can only be seen when the light is pointed in the direction of an observer, and is responsible for the pulsed appearance of emission. Neutron stars are very dense, and have short, regular rotational periods. This produces a very precise interval between pulses that range from roughly milliseconds to seconds for an individual pulsar.
The precise periods of pulsars makes them useful tools. Observations of a pulsar in a binary neutron star system were used to indirectly confirm the existence of gravitational radiation. The first extrasolar planets were discovered around a pulsar, PSR B1257+12. Certain types of pulsars rival atomic clocks in their accuracy in keeping time.
- 1 Discovery
- 2 Nomenclature
- 3 Formation
- 4 Categories
- 4.1 Disrupted recycled pulsar
- 5 Applications
- 5.1 Maps
- 5.2 Precise clocks
- 5.3 Probes of the interstellar medium
- 5.4 Probes of space-time
- 5.5 Gravitational waves detectors
- 6 Significant pulsars
Composite Optical/X-ray image of theCrab Nebula, showing synchrotron emissionin the surrounding pulsar wind nebula, powered by injection of magnetic fields and particles from the central pulsar.
The first pulsar was observed on November 28, 1967, by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish. The observed emission from the pulsar was pulses separated by 1.33 seconds, originated from the same location on the sky, and kept to sidereal time. In looking for explanations for the pulses, the short period of the pulses eliminated most astrophysical sources of radiation, such as stars, and since the pulses followed sidereal time, it could not be man-made radio frequency interference. When observations with another telescope confirmed the emission, it eliminated any sort of instrumental effects. At this point, Burnell notes of herself and Hewish that “we did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem—if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe, how does one announce the results responsibly?” Even so, they nicknamed the signal LGM-1, for “little green men” (a playful name for intelligent beings of extraterrestrial origin). It was not until a second pulsating source was discovered in a different part of the sky that the “LGM hypothesis” was entirely abandoned. Their pulsar was later dubbed CP 1919, and is now known by a number of designators including PSR 1919+21, PSR B1919+21 and PSR J1921+2153. Although CP 1919 emits in radio wavelengths, pulsars have, subsequently, been found to emit in visible light, X-ray, and/or gamma ray wavelengths.
The word “pulsar” is a contraction of “pulsating star”, and first appeared in print in 1968:
An entirely novel kind of star came to light on Aug. 6 last year and was referred to, by astronomers, as LGM (Little Green Men). Now it is thought to be a novel type between a white dwarf and a neutron [sic]. The name Pulsar is likely to be given to it. Dr. A. Hewish told me yesterday: “… I am sure that today every radio telescope is looking at the Pulsars.”
The suggestion that pulsars were rotating neutron stars was put forth independently by Thomas Gold and Franco Pacini in 1968, and was soon proven beyond reasonable doubt by the discovery of a pulsar with a very short (33-millisecond) pulse period in the Crab nebula.
In 1974, Antony Hewish became the first astronomer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Considerable controversy is associated with the fact that Professor Hewish was awarded the prize while Bell, who made the initial discovery while she was his Ph.D student, was not. Bell claims no bitterness upon this point, supporting the decision of the Nobel prize committee.
The Vela Pulsar and its surroundingpulsar wind nebula.
In 1974, Joseph Hooton Taylor, Jr. and Russell Hulse discovered for the first time a pulsar in a binary system, PSR B1913+16. This pulsar orbits another neutron star with an orbital period of just eight hours. Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts that this system should emit strong gravitational radiation, causing the orbit to continually contract as it loses orbital energy. Observations of the pulsar soon confirmed this prediction, providing the first ever evidence of the existence of gravitational waves. As of 2010, observations of this pulsar continue to agree with general relativity. In 1993, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Taylor and Hulse for the discovery of this pulsar.
In 1982, Don Backer led a group which discovered PSR B1937+21, a pulsar with a rotation period of just 1.6 milliseconds.xObservations soon revealed that its magnetic field was much weaker than ordinary pulsars, while further discoveries cemented the idea that a new class of object, the “millisecond pulsars” (MSPs) had been found. MSPs are believed to be the end product of X-ray binaries. Owing to their extraordinarily rapid and stable rotation, MSPs can be used by astronomers as clocks rivaling the stability of the bestatomic clocks on Earth. Factors affecting the arrival time of pulses at the Earth by more than a few hundred nanoseconds can be easily detected and used to make precise measurements. Physical parameters accessible through pulsar timing include the 3D position of the pulsar, its proper motion, the electron content of the interstellar medium along the propagation path, the orbital parameters of any binary companion, the pulsar rotation period and its evolution with time. (These are computed from the raw timing data by Tempo, a computer program specialized for this task.) After these factors have been taken into account, deviations between the observed arrival times and predictions made using these parameters can be found and attributed to one of three possibilities: intrinsic variations in the spin period of the pulsar, errors in the realization of Terrestrial Time against which arrival times were measured, or the presence of background gravitational waves. Scientists are currently attempting to resolve these possibilities by comparing the deviations seen amongst several different pulsars, forming what is known as a Pulsar timing array. With luck, these efforts may lead to a time scale a factor of ten or better than currently available, and the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves. In June 2006, the astronomerJohn Middleditch and his team at LANL announced the first prediction of pulsar glitches with observational data from the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer. They used observations of the pulsar PSR J0537-6910.
In 1992, Aleksander Wolszczan discovered the first extrasolar planets around PSR B1257+12. This discovery presented important evidence concerning the widespread existence of planets outside the solar system, although it is very unlikely that any life form could survive in the environment of intense radiation near a pulsar.
Initially pulsars were named with letters of the discovering observatory followed by their right ascension (e.g. CP 1919). As more pulsars were discovered, the letter code became unwieldy, and so the convention then arose of using the letters PSR (Pulsating Source of Radio) followed by the pulsar’s right ascension and degrees of declination (e.g. PSR 0531+21) and sometimes declination to a tenth of a degree (e.g. PSR 1913+167). Pulsars appearing very close together sometimes have letters appended (e.g. PSR 0021-72C and PSR 0021-72D).
The modern convention prefixes the older numbers with a B (e.g. PSR B1919+21), with the B meaning the coordinates are for the 1950.0 epoch. All new pulsars have a J indicating 2000.0 coordinates and also have declination including minutes (e.g. PSR J1921+2153). Pulsars that were discovered before 1993 tend to retain their B names rather than use their J names (e.g. PSR J1921+2153 is more commonly known as PSR B1919+21). Recently discovered pulsars only have a J name (e.g. PSR J0437-4715). All pulsars have a J name that provides more precise coordinates of its location in the sky.
Schematic view of a pulsar. The sphere in the middle represents the neutron star, the curves indicate the magnetic field lines, the protruding cones represent the emission beams and the green line represents the axis on which the star rotates.
The events leading to the formation of a pulsar begin when the core of a massive star is compressed during a supernova, which collapses into a neutron star. The neutron star retains most of its angular momentum, and since it has only a tiny fraction of its progenitor’s radius (and therefore its moment of inertia is sharply reduced), it is formed with very high rotation speed. A beam of radiation is emitted along the magnetic axis of the pulsar, which spins along with the rotation of the neutron star. The magnetic axis of the pulsar determines the direction of the electromagnetic beam, with the magnetic axis not necessarily being the same as its rotational axis. This misalignment causes the beam to be seen once for every rotation of the neutron star, which leads to the “pulsed” nature of its appearance. The beam originates from the rotational energy of the neutron star, which generates an electrical field from the movement of the very strong magnetic field, resulting in the acceleration of protons and electrons on the star surface and the creation of an electromagnetic beam emanating from the poles of the magnetic field. This rotation slows down over time as electromagnetic power is emitted. When a pulsar’s spin period slows down sufficiently, the radio pulsar mechanism is believed to turn off (the so-called “death line”). This turn-off seems to take place after about 10–100 million years, which means of all the neutron stars in the 13.6 billion year age of the universe, around 99% no longer pulsate. The longest known pulsar period is 8.51 seconds.
Though this very general picture of pulsars is mostly accepted, Werner Becker of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physicssaid in 2006, “The theory of how pulsars emit their radiation is still in its infancy, even after nearly forty years of work.”
Three distinct classes of pulsars are currently known to astronomers, according to the source of the power of the electromagnetic radiation:
- Rotation-powered pulsars, where the loss of rotational energy of the star provides the power.
- Accretion-powered pulsars (accounting for most but not all X-ray pulsars), where the gravitational potential energy of accreted matter is the power source (producing X-rays that are observable from the Earth).
- Magnetars, where the decay of an extremely strong magnetic field provides the electromagnetic power.
The Fermi Space Telescope has uncovered a subclass of rotationally-powered pulsars that emit only gamma rays. There have been only about one hundred gamma-ray pulsars identified out of about 1800 known pulsars.
Although all three classes of objects are neutron stars, their observable behavior and the underlying physics are quite different. There are, however, connections. For example, X-ray pulsars are probably old rotationally-powered pulsars that have already lost most of their power, and have only become visible again after their binary companions had expanded and began transferring matter on to the neutron star. The process of accretion can in turn transfer enough angular momentum to the neutron star to “recycle” it as a rotation-powered millisecond pulsar. As this matter lands on the neutron star, it is thought to “bury” the magnetic field of the neutron star (although the details are unclear), leaving millisecond pulsars with magnetic fields 1000-10,000 times weaker than average pulsars. This low magnetic field is less effective at slowing the pulsar’s rotation, so millisecond pulsars live for billions of years, making them the oldest known pulsars. Millisecond pulsars are seen in globular clusters, which stopped forming neutron stars billions of years ago.
Of interest to the study of the state of the matter in a neutron stars are the glitches observed in the rotation velocity of the neutron star. This velocity is decreasing slowly but steadily, except by sudden variations. One model put forward to explain these glitches is that they are the result of “starquakes” that adjust the crust of the neutron star. Models where the glitch is due to a decoupling of the possibly superconducting interior of the star have also been advanced. In both cases, the star’s moment of inertia changes, but it sangular momentum does not, resulting in a change in rotation rate.
Disrupted recycled pulsar
When two massive stars are born close together from the same cloud of gas, they can form a binary system and orbit each other from birth. If those two stars are at least a few times as massive as our sun, their lives will both end in supernova explosions. The more massive star explodes first, leaving behind a neutron star. If the explosion does not kick the second star away, the binary system survives. The neutron star can now be visible as a radio pulsar, and it slowly loses energy and spins down. Later, the second star can swell up, allowing the neutron star to suck up its matter. The matter falling onto the neutron star spins it up and reduces its magnetic field. This is called “recycling” because it returns the neutron star to a quickly-spinning state. Finally, the second star also explodes in a supernova, producing another neutron star. If this second explosion also fails to disrupt the binary, a double neutron star binary is formed. Otherwise, the spun-up neutron star is left with no companion and becomes a “disrupted recycled pulsar”, spinning between a few and 50 times per second.
The discovery of pulsars allowed astronomers to study an object never observed before, the neutron star. This kind of object is the only place where the behavior of matter at nucleardensity can be observed (though not directly). Also, millisecond pulsars have allowed a test of general relativity in conditions of an intense gravitational field.
Relative position of the Sun to the center of the Galaxy and 14 pulsars with their periods denoted
Pulsar maps have been included on the two Pioneer Plaques as well as the Voyager Golden Record. They show the position of the Sun, relative to 14 pulsars, which are identified by the unique timing of their electromagnetic pulses, so that our position both in space and in time can be calculated by potential extraterrestrial intelligences. Because pulsars are emitting very regular pulses of radio waves, its radio transmissions do not require daily corrections. Moreover, pulsar positioning could create a spacecraft navigation system independently, or be an auxiliary device to GPS instruments.
For some millisecond pulsars, the regularity of pulsation is more precise than an atomic clock. This stability allows millisecond pulsars to be used in establishing ephemeris time or building pulsar clocks.
Timing noise is the name for rotational irregularities observed in all pulsars. This timing noise is observable as random wandering in the pulse frequency or phase. It is unknown whether timing noise is related to pulsar glitches.
Probes of the interstellar medium
The radiation from pulsars passes through the interstellar medium (ISM) before reaching Earth. Free electrons in the warm (8000 K), ionized component of the ISM and H II regions affect the radiation in two primary ways. The resulting changes to the pulsar’s radiation provide an important probe of the ISM itself.
Because of the dispersive nature of the interstellar plasma, lower-frequency radio waves travel through the medium slower than higher-frequency radio waves. The resulting delay in the arrival of pulses at a range of frequencies is directly measurable as the dispersion measure of the pulsar. The dispersion measure is the total column density of free electrons between the observer and the pulsar,
where is the distance from the pulsar to the observer and is the electron density of the ISM. The dispersion measure is used to construct models of the free electron distribution in the Milky Way Galaxy.
Additionally, turbulence in the interstellar gas causes density inhomogeneities in the ISM which cause scattering of the radio waves from the pulsar. The resulting scintillation of the radio waves—the same effect as the twinkling of a star in visible light due to density variations in the Earth’s atmosphere—can be used to reconstruct information about the small scale variations in the ISM. Due to the high velocity (up to several hundred km/s) of many pulsars, a single pulsar scans the ISM rapidly, which results in changing scintillation patterns over timescales of a few minutes.
Probes of space-time
Pulsars orbiting within the curved space-time around Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, could serve as probes of gravity in the strong-field regime. Arrival times of the pulses would be affected by special- and general-relativistic Doppler shifts and by the complicated paths that the radio waves would travel through the strongly curved space-time around the black hole. In order for the effects of general relativity to be measurable with current instruments, pulsars with orbital periods less than about 10 years would need to be discovered; such pulsars would orbit at distances inside 0.01 pc from Sgr A*. Searches are currently underway; at present, five pulsars are known to lie within 100 pc from Sgr A*.
Gravitational waves detectors
The European Pulsar Timing Array uses pulsars for search of gravitational waves. The pulses from Millisecond Pulsars (MSPs) are used as a system of Galactic clocks. Disturbances in the clocks will be measurable at Earth. A disturbance from a passing gravitational wave will have a particular signature across the ensemble of pulsars, and will be thus detected.
Gamma-ray pulsars detected by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
- The first radio pulsar CP 1919 (now known as PSR 1919+21), with a pulse period of 1.337 seconds and a pulse width of 0.04 second, was discovered in 1967.
- The first binary pulsar, PSR 1913+16, whose orbit is decaying at the exact rate predicted due to the emission of gravitational radiation bygeneral relativity
- The first millisecond pulsar, PSR B1937+21
- The brightest millisecond pulsar, PSR J0437-4715
- The first X-ray pulsar, Cen X-3
- The first accreting millisecond X-ray pulsar, SAX J1808.4-3658
- The first pulsar with planets, PSR B1257+12
- The first double pulsar binary system, PSR J0737−3039
- The longest period pulsar, PSR J2144-3933
- The most stable pulsar in period, PSR J0437-4715
- PSR B1931+24 “… appears as a normal pulsar for about a week and then ‘switches off’ for about one month before emitting pulses again. [..] this pulsar slows down more rapidly when the pulsar is on than when it is off. [.. the] braking mechanism must be related to the radio emission and the processes creating it and the additional slow-down can be explained by the pulsar wind leaving the pulsar’s magnetosphere and carrying away rotational energy.”
- PSR J1748-2446ad, at 716 Hz, the pulsar with the highest rotation speed.
- PSR J1903+0327, a ~2.15 ms pulsar discovered to be in a highly eccentric binary star system with a sun-like star.
- A pulsar in the CTA 1 supernova remnant (4U 0000+72, in Cassiopeia) was found by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope to emit pulsations only in gamma ray radiation, the first recorded of its kind.
- PSR J2007+2722, a 40.8-hertz ‘recycled’ isolated pulsar was the first pulsar found by volunteers on data taken in February 2007 and analyzed by distributed computing project Einstein@Home.
- PSR J1311–3430, the first millisecond pulsar discovered via gamma-ray pulsations and part of a binary system with the shortest orbital period.