Misbehaving Pulsars: Unexpected Changes in the Most Predictable of Stars

Animation Pulsar Spinning Neutron Star

Artist’s concept of a pulsar.

Pulsars, a class of neutron stars, are extremely predictable stars. They are formed from the hearts of massive stars that have since collapsed in on themselves, no longer able to burn enough fuel to fend off the crushing gravity the star possesses. If the conditions are right, the star will continue to collapse in on itself until what’s left is a remnant of what was there before, usually only about the size of the Melbourne CBD, but 1-2 times as heavy as our Sun, making these some of the densest objects in the Universe.

These stars don’t produce much visible light, but from their magnetic poles, they emit surprisingly bright beams of radio waves. If we’re lucky, as the star rotates, those beams will wash over the Earth and we observe ‘pulses’. While most pulsars spin around in about a second, there is a subclass of these stars that spin around in just a few thousandths of a second—they’re called ‘millisecond’ pulsars.

Observing the pulses from these millisecond pulsars gives physicists clues to many questions, including testing General Relativity and understanding the densest states of matter. But one of the main goals of observing these incredibly fast, dense stars is to detect ultra-long wavelength gravitational waves. And by long, we mean many light-years long. These gravitational waves distort space-time between us and the pulsars, causing the pulses to arrive earlier or later than expected. It’s likely that these gravitational waves come from a background produced by all the binary supermassive black holes in the Universe, which form from galaxies crashing into one another.

As part of OzGrav, we try and detect this gravitational wave background by looking at collections of the most predictable stars (called pulsar timing arrays) and measuring how they change over time. We did this by using the world’s most sensitive radio telescopes, including the Australian Murriyang telescope (also known as the Parkes telescope) and the ultra-sensitive MeerKAT array telescope in South Africa.

But it’s not quite that simple. From our observations with MeerKAT we found that the most precisely timed (read: predictable) pulsar, J1909-3744, was misbehaving. We found that the pulses were changing shape, with bright pulses arriving earlier and narrower than faint ones. This leads to greater uncertainty in its predicted emission. Fortunately, we were able to establish a method to account for this change and time tag the pulsar more precisely than ever before. This method could be of use for other pulsars and will be important when more advanced telescopes are available in the future.

​Written by OzGrav PhD student Matthew Miles, Swinburne University.

1 Comment on "Misbehaving Pulsars: Unexpected Changes in the Most Predictable of Stars"

  1. Cor ‘strewth, mate, that’s a giant leap for the wallaby, eh. But might not mean much to those in the wastes of Western Australia.

    While I could look up what was meant by “Melbourne CBD”, would it not have been more helpful to use an established scientific measurement such as 15 blue whales ?

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