Bizarre Pulsating Star Hiccups as it Spins

By Chelsea Whyte on July 26, 2012 7:52 PM EDT

pulsar
A gamma-ray pulsar is a compact neutron star that accelerates charged particles to relativistic speeds in its extremely strong magnetic field. This process produces gamma radiation (violet) far above the surface of the compact remains of the star, while radio waves (green) are emitted over the magnetic poles in the form of a cone. The rotation sweeps the emission regions across the terrestrial line of sight, making the pulsar light up periodically in the sky. (Photo: NASA/Fermi/Cruz de Wilde)

Scientists have found a young pulsar - a compact star that rotates about its axis many times per second, emitting gamma rays and radio waves - with the glitch in its rotation.

This particular star is 'radio silent', meaning it only sends out gamma rays, and its hiccup is the strongest ever observed from a gamma-ray-only pulsar. Pure gamma-ray pulsars often elude detection because without radio signals, their positions in the sky and period of rotation are unknown.

But researchers from the Max Planck Institutes for Gravitational Physics and for Radio Astronomy dug deep into data from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope to locate this particular pulsar. High-performance computers reach their limit during the process of finding these pulsars, so researchers have to use algorithms originally developed for the analysis of gravitational-wave data to conduct a more efficient hunt through the Fermi data, reports Red Orbit.

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"By employing new optimal algorithms on our ATLAS computer cluster, we were able to identify many previously-missed signals," said Bruce Allen, Director of the AEI.

The name of the newly discovered pulsar - J1838-0537 - comes from its celestial coordinates.

"The pulsar is, at 5,000 years of age, very young. It rotates about its own axis roughly seven times per second and its position in the sky is towards the Scutum constellation," said Holger Pletsch, a scientist in Allen's group and lead author of the study which has now been published. "After the discovery we were very surprised that the pulsar was initially only visible until September 2009. Then it seemed to suddenly disappear."

But it didn't just disappear. What they saw was the star's apparent 'hiccup', after which it rotated 38 millionths of a Hertz faster than before.

"This difference may appear negligibly small, but it's the largest glitch ever measured for a pure gamma-ray pulsar," Allen said.

Such glitches have been observed in other pulsars before, but their cause is unknown. One idea is that "star quakes" on the surfaces of pulsars affect the change in rotation speed, or that the glitch is caused by interactions between the stars' fluid interiors and crusts, reports Space.com.

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