Welcome to the Pulsar Search Collaboratory! As part of the PSC you will be helping to
identify new pulsars in data taken with the Green Bank Telescope. This guide is
designed to help you in three ways:
Pulsars are a special class of neutron star. Neutron stars are the remnants of stars that are several times more massive than our own Sun. Such stars end their lives in an explosion that astronomers call a supernova. This explosion destroys all the outer layers of the star, leaving behind only a super-dense core. This core is the neutron star. We call these remnants neutron stars because they are made of neutrons &mdash the subatomic particles that can be found in the nucleus of an atom. You may be asking yourself, "If neutrons are found in atoms, shouldn't all stars contain neutrons?" The answer to this questions is yes, but neutron stars are unique because they are made almost entirely of neutrons. Furthermore, these neutrons are not contained within atoms, but rather exist on their own.
It is impossible to create anything resembling a neutron star in a laboratory here on Earth. That is because neutron stars can only be made by squeezing normal atoms together very tightly, so that the density gets very high. Most neutron stars are a bit more massive than our Sun, but are only 20 miles across. Neutron stars are so dense that just one teaspoonful would weigh over one billion tons! Because they are so dense, neutron stars have extremely strong gravitational fields. The gravity on the surface of a neutron star is 100 billion times stronger than on the surface of the Earth. If you cold somehow visit the surface of a neutron star you would be crushed into a very flat pancake! The self-gravity of the neutron star is responsible for squeezing so much mass into such a small area. It is believed that neutron stars more than 2 or 3 times the mass of our Sun cannot support their own weight, and ultimately collapse to become black holes.
What separates pulsars from other neutron stars? For starters, pulsars have very strong magnetic fields. Many objects in the universe have magnetic fields &mdash Earth has a magnetic field that helps to protect us from radiation emitted by the Sun, and the Sun has its own magnetic field that causes solar flares and Sun spots. But the magnetic fields around pulsars are much stronger than the Earth's or the Sun's. In fact, pulsars have magnetic fields that are between one billion and one quadrillion times stronger than the Earth's! These uber-strong magnetic fields produce some very interesting phenomena. The most important for us is that radiation is beamed from the magnetic poles of the pulsar. Let's take a moment to discuss this more fully. If you have ever played with a bar magnet before, you know that magnets have a north and south pole. This is true of Earth's magnetic field, and it is this fact that allows compasses to work. Magnetic fields are strongest at these poles, and the magnetic fields at the poles of pulsars are so strong that a lot of amazing things happen. One thing is that radiation is produced in the form of radio waves ( see the Appendix for a discussion of the nature of light and radio waves). These radio waves are emitted from the poles in a very tight beam of radiation, almost like a flashlight.
Another property of pulsars now becomes important &mdash pulsars spin very quickly. They can spin anywhere from once every few seconds to as many as hundreds of times in a single second! Take a moment to try and visualize what is going on here. We have a neutron star that is sending radio waves out in beams from its two magnetic poles, while at the same time rotating very quickly. If you think about it, you will realize that this is a lot like a lighthouse, leading many people to describe pulsars as interstellar beacons. But we can only carry this analogy so far. Lighthouses on Earth create visible light, but when we look at pulsars we are looking for radio waves. Lighthouses on Earth are also much smaller and much, much less powerful than pulsars are. And finally, pulsars can spin several hundred times a second. Lighthouses on Earth certainly don't spin this fast!
Every time the pulsar's beam points towards us we will see a brief "flash" of radio waves. Just as with a lighthouse, if we had "radio eyes" we would see pulsars blink, or pulse. This is precisely where the name pulsar comes from. Of course, the pulsar's beam has to actually be at the proper orientation so that it points towards us. Otherwise, we would see no pulse of radio waves, and hence no pulsar.
All of this is very interesting, but the last property of pulsars that we are going to discuss is what really makes them useful to astronomers. That is that pulsars are very precise clocks. It may sound strange to call a city-sized ball of spinning neutrons a clock, and to be sure pulsars don't have hour and minutes hands or a face that reads 1&mdash12. However, a clock really is nothing more than something that lets us keep time by ticking at regular, well known intervals. The tick of a pulsar is simply the brief pulse of radio waves, and the regular interval is the period of the pulsar, which is the time it takes for the pulsar to spin around once. It turns out that when we average over many pulses, pulsars have extremely stable periods, and as such we can predict with very high precision when any given pulse should arrive at Earth. However, a gradual slowing down of the pulsar's spin period, the presence of a companion star or planet, a large acceleration between the Earth and the pulsar, shifts in the outer layers of the neutron star, and many other things can cause the true time of arrival of a given pulse to be different than the prediction. Astronomers can model all of these effects and bring our prediction back in line with observation. This is how astronomers use pulsars as tools for studying the universe. Since we could never create anything even coming close to a pulsar here on Earth, these are unique tools that allow us to answer unique questions. This is the true importance of pulsars to astronomy. Of course, in order to use pulsars to do science, we have to find them, and that is exactly what you will be helping to do.