Home computers discover gamma-ray pulsars
Einstein@Home volunteers find four cosmic lighthouses in data from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope
The combination of globally distributed computing power and innovative analysis methods proves to be a recipe for success in the search for new pulsars. Scientists from the Max Planck Institutes for Gravitational Physics and Radio Astronomy together with international colleagues have now discovered four gamma-ray pulsars in data from the Fermi space telescope. The breakthrough came using the distributed computing project Einstein@Home, which connects more than 200,000 computers from 40,000 participants around the world to a global supercomputer. The discoveries include volunteers from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the USA.
Neutron stars are exotic objects. They are made up of matter much more densely packed than normal, giving the entire star a density comparable to an atomic nucleus. The diameter of our sun would shrink to less than 30 km if it was that dense.
Neutron stars also have extremely strong magnetic fields. Charged particles accelerated along the field lines emit electromagnetic radiation in different wavelengths. This radiation is bundled into a cone along the magnetic field axis. As the neutron star turns about its rotational axis, the cones of emitted radiation sweep through the sky like a lighthouse beam because the rotational axis is usually inclined relative to the magnetic field axis. The neutron star is then visible as a pulsar. Pulsars rotate with cycles of a few seconds up to only milliseconds with a precision that makes them the most accurate clocks in the world.
These cosmic lighthouses were first discovered in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and identified as radio pulsars. X-ray and gamma-ray pulsars are also known to exist today. Even though not all pulsars are observable in all wavelengths, scientists assume that they still emit radiation in the entire electromagnetic spectrum. However the mechanisms which govern radiation emission in different frequency ranges are not yet completely understood.
Gamma-ray pulsars and radio pulsars
A plausible explanation could be that lower-energy radio waves are bundled in a tighter cone at the magnetic poles than high-energy gamma-radiation. Since radiation is mainly emitted along the surface of the cone and different wavelengths are emitted in cones with a different spread, radio waves and gamma waves would leave the neutron star in different directions. A pulsar might thus become visible as a gamma-ray or radio pulsar to a distant observer (depending on which cone sweeps across the observers position). Another model has gamma radiation originating not in the polar regions of the magnetic field but rather the equatorial plane where the field lines are disrupted. It is therefore very important to observe as many pulsars as possible in all wavelengths to better understand these mechanisms.
When analyzing data from gravitational wave detectors, scientists have to rely on very effective algorithms and high computing power. This is necessary, because a possible gravitational wave signal would be scarcely stronger than the background noise at the current measurement accuracy.
The data is analyzed in several steps. First, the astrophysicists scan large areas of the sky for signals. If there is a conspicuous signal in one direction, they investigate the vicinity with an algorithm which has a narrower search grid and thus requires more computing time. If the signal is confirmed, the scientists analyse its temporal characteristic and examine whether it can be assigned to a specific pulsar period, for example. The Hanover scientists have modified the algorithm to search for continuous sources of gravitational waves and used it successfully to search for gamma-ray pulsars in Fermi data.
This project for distributed volunteer computing connects PC users from all over the world, who voluntarily donate spare computing time on their home and office computers. So far more than 350,000 volunteers have participated and it is therefore one of the largest projects of this kind. Scientific supporters are the Center for Gravitation and Cosmology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute, Hanover) with financial support from the National Science Foundation and the Max Planck Society. Since 2005, Einstein@Home has examined data from the gravitational wave detectors within the LIGO-Virgo-Science Collaboration (LVC) for gravitational waves from unknown, rapidly rotating neutron stars.
As of March 2009, Einstein@Home has also been involved in the search for signals from radio pulsars in observational data from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Parkes Observatory in Australia. Since the first discovery of a radio pulsar by Einstein@Home in August 2010, the global computer network has discovered more than 50 new radio pulsars.
A new search for gamma-ray pulsars in data of the Fermi satellite was added in August 2011. It made the four discoveries reported now. The project is looking for, among other things, the first millisecond pulsar, visible only in the gamma-ray range.