Second Fastest Pulsar Spins 42,000 Times a Minute

Pulsars are what remains when a massive star undergoes gravitational collapse and explodes in a supernova. These remnants (also known as neutron stars) are extremely dense, with several Earth-masses crammed into a space the size of a small country. They also have powerful magnetic fields, which causes them to rotate rapidly and emit powerful beams of gamma rays or x-rays – which lends them the appearance of a lighthouse.

In some cases, pulsars spin especially fast, taking only milliseconds to complete a single rotation. These “millisecond pulsars” remain a source of mystery for astronomers. And after following up on previous observations, researchers using the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) radio telescope in the Netherlands identified a pulsar (PSR J0952?0607) that spins more than 42,000 times per minute, making it the second-fastest pulsar ever discovered.

The study which described their findings, titled “LOFAR Discovery of the Fastest-spinning Millisecond Pulsar in the Galactic Field“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Led by Dr. Cees Bassa, an astrophysicist from the University of Utrecht and the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON), the team conducted follow-up observations of PSR J0952?0607, a millisecond pulsar located 3,200 to 5,700 light-years away.

An all-sky view in gamma ray light made with the Fermi gamma ray space telescope. Credit: NASA/DOE/International LAT Team

This study was part of an ongoing LOFAR survey of energetic sources originally identified by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray space telescope. The purpose of this survey was to distinguish between the gamma-ray sources Fermi detected, which could have been caused by neutron stars, pulsars, supernovae or the regions around black holes. As Elizabeth Ferrara, a member of the discovery team at NASA’s Goddard Space Center, explained in a NASA press release:

“Roughly a third of the gamma-ray sources found by Fermi have not been detected at other wavelengths. Many of these unassociated sources may be pulsars, but we often need follow-up from radio observatories to detect the pulses and prove it. There’s a real synergy across the extreme ends of the electromagnetic spectrum in hunting for them.”

Their follow-up observations indicated that this particular source was a pulsar that spins at a rate of 707 revolutions (Hz) per second, which works out to 42,000 revolutions per minute. This makes it, by definition, a millisecond pulsar. The team also confirmed that it is about 1.4 Solar Masses and is orbited every 6.4 hours by a companion star that has been stripped down to less than 0.05 Jupiter masses.

The presence of this lightweight companion is a further indication of how the spin of this pulsar became so rapid. Over time, matter would have been stripped away from the star, gradually accreting onto PSR J0952?0607. This would not only raise its spin rate but also greatly increase its electromagnetic emissions. The process continues to this day, with the star becoming increasingly smaller as the pulsar becomes more energetic.

Artist’s impression of a pulsar siphoning material from a companion star. Credit: NASA

Because of the nature of this relationship (which can only be described as “cannibalistic”), systems like PSR J0952?0607 are often called “black widow” or “redback” pulsars. Most of these systems were found by following up on sources identified by the Fermi mission, since the process has been known to result in a considerable amount of electromagnetic radiation being released.

Beyond the discovery of this record-setting pulsar, the LOFAR discovery could also be an indication that there is a new population of ultra-fast spinning pulsars in our Universe. As Dr. Bassa explained:

“LOFAR picked up pulses from J0952 at radio frequencies around 135 MHz, which is about 45 percent lower than the lowest frequencies of conventional radio searches. We found that J0952 has a steep radio spectrum, which means its radio pulses fade out very quickly at higher frequencies. It would have been a challenge to find it without LOFAR.”

The fastest spinning pulsar known, PSR J1748-2446ad, spins just slightly faster than PSR J0952?0607 – reaching a rate of nearly 43,000 rpm (or 716 revolutions per second). But some theorists think that pulsars could spin as fast as 72,000 rpm (almost twice as fast) before breaking up. This remains a theory, since rapidly-spinning pulsars are rather difficult to detect.

But with the help of instrument like LOFAR, that could be changing. For instance, both PSR J1748-2446ad and PSR J0952?0607 were shown to have steep spectra – much like radio galaxies and Active Galactic Nuclei.  The same was true of J1552+5437, another millisecond pular detected by LOFAR which spins at 25,000 rpm.

As Ziggy Pleunis – a doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal and a co-author on the study – indicated, this could be a sign that the fastest-spinning pulsars are just waiting to be found.

“There is growing evidence that the fastest-spinning pulsars tend to have the steepest spectra,” he said. “Since LOFAR searches are more sensitive to these steep-spectrum radio pulsars, we may find that even faster pulsars do, in fact, exist and have been missed by surveys at higher frequencies.”

As with many other areas of astronomical research, improvements in instrumentation and methodology are allowing for new and exciting discoveries. As expected, some of the things we are finding are forcing astronomers to rethink more than a few previously-held assumptions about the nature and limits of certain phenomena.

Be sure to enjoy this NASA video that explains “black widow” pulsars and the ongoing search to find them:

Further Reading: NASA, Astrophysical Journal Letters

NASA is Planning to Test Pulsars as Cosmic Navigation Beacons

When a large star undergoes gravitational collapse near the end of its lifespan, a neutron star is often the result. This is what remains after the outer layers of the star have been blown off in a massive explosion (i.e. a supernova) and the core has compressed to extreme density. Afterwards, the star’s rotation rate increases considerably, and where they emit beams of electromagnetic radiation, they become “pulsars”.

And now, 50 years after they were first discovered by British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell, the first mission devoted to the study of these objects is about to be mounted. It is known as the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), a two-part experiment that will be deployed to the International Space Station this summer. If all goes well, this platform will shed light on one of the greatest astronomical mysteries, and test out new technologies.

Astronomers have been studying neutron stars for almost a century, which have yielded some very precise measurements of their masses and radii. However, what actually transpires in the interior of a neutron star remains an enduring mystery. While numerous models have been advanced that describe the physics governing their interiors, it is still unclear how matter would behave under these types of conditions.

Not surprising, since neutron stars typically hold about 1.4 times the mass of our Sun (or 460,000 times the mass of the Earth) within a volume of space that is the size of a city. This kind of situation, where a considerable amount of matter is packed into a very small volume – resulting in crushing gravity and an incredible matter density – is not seen anywhere else in the Universe.

As Keith Gendreau, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained in a recent NASA press statement:

“The nature of matter under these conditions is a decades-old unsolved problem. Theory has advanced a host of models to describe the physics governing the interiors of neutron stars. With NICER, we can finally test these theories with precise observations.”

NICE was developed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center with the assistance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Naval Research Laboratory, and universities across the U.S. and Canada. It consists of a refrigerator-sized apparatus that contains 56 X-ray telescopes and silicon detectors. Though it was originally intended to be deployed late in 2016, a launch window did not become available until this year.

Once installed as an external payload aboard the ISS, it will gather data on neutron stars (mainly pulsars) over an 18-month period by observing neutron stars in the X-ray band. Even though these stars emit radiation across the spectrum, X-ray observations are believed to be the most promising when it comes to revealing things about their structure and various high-energy phenomena associated with them.

SEXTANT will demonstrate a GPS-like absolute position determination capability by observing millisecond pulsars. Credit: NASA

These include starquakes, thermonuclear explosions, and the most powerful magnetic fields known in the Universe. To do this, NICER will collect X-rays generated from these stars’ magnetic fields and magnetic poles. This is key, since it is at the poles that the strength of a neutron star’s magnetic fields causes particles to be trapped and rain down on the surface, which produces X-rays.

In pulsars, it is these intense magnetic fields which cause energetic particles to become focused beams of radiation. These beams are what give pulsars their name, as they appear like flashes thanks to the star’s rotation (giving them their “lighthouse”-like appearance). As physicists have observed, these pulsations are predictable, and can therefore be used the same way atomic-clocks and Global Positioning System are here on Earth.

While the primary goal of NICER is science, it also offers the possibility of testing new forms of technology. For instance, the instrument will be used to conduct the first-ever demonstration of autonomous X-ray pulsar-based navigation. As part of the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT), the team will use NICER’s telescopes to detect the X-ray beams generated by pulsars to estimate the arrival times of their pulses.

The team will then use specifically-designed algorithms to create an on-board navigation solution. In the future, interstellar spaceships could theoretically rely on this to calculate their location autonomously. This wold allow them to find their way in space without having to rely on NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), which is considered to be the most sensitive telecommunications system in the world.

Beyond navigation, the NICER project also hopes to conduct the first-ever test of the viability of X-ray based-communications (XCOM). By using X-rays to send and receive data (in the same way we currently use radio waves), spacecraft could transmit data at the rate of gigabits per second over interplanetary distances. Such a capacity could revolutionize the way we communicate with crewed missions, rover and orbiters.

Central to both demonstrations is the Modulated X-ray Source (MXS), which the NICER team developed to calibrate the payload’s detectors and test the navigation algorithms. Generating X-rays with rapidly varying intensity (by switching on and off many times per second), this device will simulate a neutron star’s pulsations. As Gendreau explained:

“This is a very interesting experiment that we’re doing on the space station. We’ve had a lot of great support from the science and space technology folks at NASA Headquarters. They have helped us advance the technologies that make NICER possible as well as those that NICER will demonstrate. The mission is blazing trails on several different levels.”

It is hoped that the MXS will be ready to ship to the station sometime next year; at which time, navigation and communication demonstrations could begin. And it is expected that before July 25th, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Bell’s discovery, the team will have collected enough data to present findings at scientific conferences scheduled for later this year.

If successful, NICER could revolutionize our understanding of how neutron stars (and how matter behaves in a super-dense state) behaves. This knowledge could also help us to understand other cosmological mysteries such as black holes. On top of that, X-ray communications and navigation could revolutionize space exploration and travel as we know it. In addition to providing greater returns from robotic missions located closer to home, it could also enable more lucrative missions to locations in the outer Solar System and even beyond.

Further Reading: NASA

Messier 5 (M5) – The NGC 5904 Globular Cluster

In the late 18th century, Charles Messier was busy hunting for comets in the night sky, and noticed several “nebulous” objects. After initially mistaking them for the comets he was seeking, he began to compile a list of these objects so other astronomers would not make the same mistake. Known as the Messier Catalog, this list consists of 100 objects, consisting of distant galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters.

Among the many famous objects in this catalog is the M5 globular star cluster (aka. NGC 5904). Located in the galactic halo within the Serpens Constellation, this cluster of stars is almost as old as the Universe itself (13 billion years)! Though very distant from Earth and hard to spot, it is a favorite amongst amateur astronomers who swear by its beauty.

Continue reading “Messier 5 (M5) – The NGC 5904 Globular Cluster”

Recycling Pulsars – The Millisecond Matters…

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It’s a millisecond pulsar… a rapidly rotating neutron star and it’s about to reach the end of its mass gathering phase. For ages the vampire of this binary system has been sucking matter from a donor star. It has been busy, spinning at incredibly high rotational speeds of about 1 to 10 milliseconds and shooting off X-rays. Now, something is about to happen. It is going to lose a whole lot of energy and age very quickly.

Astrophysicist Thomas Tauris of Argelander-Institut für Astronomie and Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie has published a paper in the February 3 issue of Science where he has shown through numerical equations the root of stellar evolution and accretion torques. In this model, millisecond pulsars are shown to dissipate approximately half of their rotational energy during the last phase of the mass-transfer process and just before it turns into a radio source. Dr. Tauris’ findings are consistent with current observations and his conclusions also explain why a radio millisecond pulsar appears age-advanced over their companion stars. This may be the answer as to why sub-millisecond pulsars don’t exist at all!

“Millisecond pulsars are old neutron stars that have been spun up to high rotational frequencies via accretion of mass from a binary companion star.” says Dr. Tauris. “An important issue for understanding the physics of the early spin evolution of millisecond pulsars is the impact of the expanding magnetosphere during the terminal stages of the mass-transfer process.”

By drawing mass and angular momentum from a host star in a binary system, a millisecond pulsar lives its life as a highly magnetized, old neutron star with an extreme rotational frequency. While we might assume they are common, there are only about 200 of these pulsar types known to exist in galactic disk and globular clusters. The first of these millisecond pulsars was discovered in 1982. What counts are those that have spin rates between 1.4 to 10 milliseconds, but the mystery lay in why they have such rapid spin rates, their strong magnetic fields and their strangely appearing ages. For example, when do they switch off? What happens to the spin rate when the donor star quits donating?

“We have now, for the first time, combined detailed numerical stellar evolution models with calculations of the braking torque acting on the spinning pulsar”, says Thomas Tauris, the author of the present study. “The result is that the millisecond pulsars lose about half of their rotational energy in the so-called Roche-lobe decoupling phase. This phase is describing the termination of the mass transfer in the binary system. Hence, radio-emitting millisecond pulsars should spin slightly slower than their progenitors, X-ray emitting millisecond pulsars which are still accreting material from their donor star. This is exactly what the observational data seem to suggest. Furthermore, these new findings can help explain why some millisecond pulsars appear to have characteristic ages exceeding the age of the Universe and perhaps why no sub-millisecond radio pulsars exist.”

Thanks to this new study we’re now able to see how a spinning pulsar could possibly brake out of an equilibrium spin. At this age, the mass-transfer rate slows down and affects the magnetospheric radius of the pulsar. This in turn expands and forces the incoming matter to act as a propeller. The action then causes the pulsar to slow down its rotation and – in turn – slow its spin rate.

“Actually, without a solution to the “turn-off” problem we would expect the pulsars to even slow down to spin periods of 50-100 milliseconds during the Roche-lobe decoupling phase”, concludes Thomas Tauris. “That would be in clear contradiction with observational evidence for the existence of millisecond pulsars.”

Original Story Source: Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie News Release>. For Further Reading: Spin-Down of Radio Millisecond Pulsars at Genesis.

Students Discover Millisecond Pulsar, Help in the Search for Gravitational Waves

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A special project to search for pulsars has bagged the first student discovery of a millisecond pulsar – a super-fast spinning star, and this one rotates about 324 times per second. The Pulsar Search Collaboratory (PSC) has students analyzing real data from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (NRAO) Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) to find pulsars. Astronomers involved with the project said the discovery could help detect elusive ripples in spacetime known as gravitational waves.

“Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime predicted by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity,” said Dr. Maura McLaughlin, from West Virginia University. “We have very good proof for their existence but, despite Einstein’s prediction back in the early 1900s, they have never been detected.”

Four other pulsars have been discovered by high school students participating in this project.

Pulsar hunters Sydney Dydiw of Trinity High School, Emily Phan of George C. Marshall High School, Anne Agee of Roanoke Valley Governor's School, and Jessica Pal of Rowan County High School. Not pictured: Max Sterling of Langley High School. Credit: NRAO

“When you discover a pulsar, you feel like you’re walking on air! It is the best experience you can ever have,” said student co-discoverer Jessica Pal of Rowan County High School in Kentucky. “You get to meet astronomers and talk to them about your experience. I still can’t believe I found a pulsar. It is wonderful to know that there is something out there in space that you discovered.”

The other student involved in the discovery was Emily Phan of George C. Marshall High School in Virginia, who along with Pal found the millisecond pulsar on January 17, 2012. It was later confirmed by Max Sterling of Langley High School, Sydney Dydiw of Trinity High School, and Anne Agee of Roanoke Valley Governor’s School, all in Virginia.

“I am considering pursuing astronomy as a career choice,” said Agee. “The Pulsar Search Collaboratory has opened my eyes to how fun astronomy can be!”

Once the pulsar candidate was reported to NRAO, a followup observing session was scheduled on the giant, 17-million-pound telescope. On January 24, 2012, observations confirmed that the pulsar was real.

Pulsars are spinning neutron stars that sling “lighthouse beams” of radio waves around as they rotate. A neutron star is what is left after a massive star explodes at the end of its “normal” life. With no nuclear fuel left to produce energy to offset the stellar remnant’s weight, its material is compressed to extreme densities. The pressure squeezes together most of its protons and electrons to form neutrons; hence, the name “neutron star.” One tablespoon of material from a pulsar would weigh 10 million tons.

On January 24, 2012, observations with the Green Bank Telescope at 800 MHz confirmed that the signal was astronomical and zeroed in on its position. Pulsars are brighter at lower frequencies (like 350 MHz, above) than at higher frequencies, and so the confirmation plot is noisier than the original data. Since this pulsar spins so fast, it may be used as part of the pulsar timing array used to detect gravitational waves. Courtesy NRAO.

The object that the students discovered is a special class of pulsars called millisecond pulsars, which are the fastest-spinning neutron stars. They are highly stable and keep time more accurately than atomic clocks.

Astronomers don’t know much about them, however. But because of their stability, these pulsars may someday allow astronomers to detect gravitational waves.

Millisecond pulsars, however, could hold the key to that discovery. Like buoys bobbing on the ocean, pulsars can be perturbed by gravitational waves.

“Gravitational waves are invisible,” said McLaughlin. “But by timing pulsars distributed across the sky, we may be able to detect very small changes in pulse arrival times due to the influence of these waves.”

Millisecond pulsars are generally older pulsars that have been “spun up” by stealing mass from companion stars, but much is left to discover about their formation.

“This latest discovery will help us understand the genesis of millisecond pulsars,” said Dr. Duncan Lorimer, who is also part of the project. “It’s a very exciting time to be finding pulsars!”

Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope CREDIT: NRAO/AUI/NSF

The PSC is a joint project of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and West Virginia University, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The PSC includes training for teachers and student leaders, and provides parcels of data from the GBT to student teams. The project involves teachers and students in helping astronomers analyze data from the GBT.

Approximately 300 hours of the observing data were reserved for analysis by student teams. These students have been working with about 500 other students across the country. The responsibility for the work, and for the discoveries, is theirs. They are trained by astronomers and by their teachers to distinguish between pulsars and noise.

The PSC will continue through the 2012-2013 school year. Teachers interested in participating in the program can learn more at this link. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Star Transforms Into A Diamond Planet

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“Remember when you were young… You shone like the sun.” Four thousand light years away in the constellation of Serpens, a millisecond pulsar binary is pounding out its heartbeat. Meanwhile an international research team of scientists from Australia, Germany, Italy, the UK and the USA, including Prof. Michael Kramer from Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, German are listening in. Utilizing the 64-m radio telescope in Parkes, Australia, the team made a rather amazing discovery. The companion star could very well be an ultra-low mass carbon white dwarf… one that’s transformed itself into a planet made of pure diamond.

“The density of the planet is at least that of platinum and provides a clue to its origin”, said the research team leader, Prof. Matthew Bailes of Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. Bailes leads the “Dynamic Universe” theme in a new wide-field astronomy initiative, the Centre of Excellence in All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO). He is presently on scientific leave at Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.

Like a lighthouse, PSR J1719-1438 emits radio signals which sweep around methodically. When researchers noticed a specific modulation every 130 minutes, they realized they were picking up a signature of planetary proportions. Given the distance of its orbit, the companion could very well be the core of a once massive star whose material was consumed by pulsar’s gravity.

“We know of a few other systems, called ultra-compact low-mass X-ray binaries, that are likely to be evolving according to the scenario above and may likely represent the progenitors of a pulsar like J1719-1438” said Dr. Andrea Possenti, of INAF-Osservatorio Astronomicodi Cagliari.

With almost all of its original mass gone, very little of the companion could be left save for carbon and oxygen… and stars still rich in lighter elements like hydrogen and helium won’t fit the equation. This leaves a density which could very well be crystalline – and a composition which closely resembles diamond.

“The ultimate fate of the binary is determined by the mass and orbital period of the donor star at the time of mass transfer. The rarity of millisecond pulsars with planet-mass companions means that producing such ‘exotic planets’ is the exception and not the rule, and requires special circumstances”, said Dr. Benjamin Stappers from the University of Manchester.

“The new discovery came as a surprise for us. But there is certainly a lot more we’ll find out about pulsars and fundamental physics in the following years”, concludes Michael Kramer.

Shine on, you crazy diamond…

Original Story Source: Max Planck Institut for Radio Astronomy and Transformation of a Star into a Planet in a Millisecond Pulsar Binary.