Hidden in plain sight
Max Planck scientists discover elusive gamma-ray pulsar with distributed computing project Einstein@Home
Gamma-ray pulsars are remnants of explosions that end the lives of massive stars. They are highly-magnetized and rapidly rotating compact neutron stars. Like a cosmic lighthouse they emit gamma-ray photons in a characteristic pattern that repeats with every rotation. However, since only very few gamma-ray photons are detected, finding this hidden rhythm in the arrival times of the photons is computationally challenging. Now, an international team led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute, AEI) in Hannover, Germany, has discovered a new gamma-ray pulsar hidden in plain sight in data from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. The improved, adaptive data analysis methods and the computing power from the distributed volunteer computing project Einstein@Home were key to their success.
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 kilometers 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 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 becomes visible as a pulsar, if the beams sweep over Earth. Pulsars rotate with cycles of a few seconds up to only milliseconds. Their rotational periods can be highly stable with a precision that places them among the most accurate clocks in the Universe.
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 why some pulsars are visible as as gamma-ray pulsars and not as radio pulsars 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.
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 400,000 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 has discovered five new gamma-ray pulsars as of today.