In 2012, a group of high school students involved in a workshop in Green Bank, West Virginia at the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in the US, discovered a double pulsar system. Working through a grant from the National Science Foundation, the group found that the double pulsar had a highly unusual orbit. The orbit is twice the size of what is usually found with these binary systems.
The Creation of a Pulsar
A pulsar is created by a sun that has goes supernova and explodes. What is left is a neutron star that has a highly dense core that continues to spin, have a gravitational pull and emits extremely high-energy radio beams from its north and south poles as it travels.
A pulsar is a neutron star that is spinning as fast as 1,122 rotations in one second. If the radio beams from the poles are pointed toward Earth, they create a beacon, much like a lighthouse, that appears to pulse at regular intervals; thus, the name pulsar.
Discovery of the Double Pulsar
The students who found the double pulsar system were participating in a summer workshop called the Pulsar Search Collabaratory at the Green Bank Telescope. Students spend countless hours pouring over data from pulsar surveys from the GBT and those who come up with likely candidates are invited to come to the GBT to work with astronomers to confirm what they found.
The students are Cecilia McGough from Strasburgh High School of Virginia and De’Shange Ray from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Maryland. The lead author of the paper published in Astrophysical Journal, Joe Swiggum, a physics and astronomy graduate student from the West Virginia University in Morgantown, stated that pulsars are some of the most extreme things in space and that the discovery by the students really shows a rare set of circumstances.
Why the Find is So Extraordinary
While neutron stars and pulsars may not be very rare in the universe, only around 10% of pulsars are found to be binary systems. This means that when the original star exploded, two cores were created and managed to stay gravitationally connected to each other and began orbiting each other. Most pulsars are found orbiting dwarf white stars, not other neutron stars.
What makes this double pulsar most unusual is that their orbit is believed be the largest of any other of the binary pulsar system. Other double systems travel around each other in an orbit roughly the size of our sun and take less than a day for a full rotation. The size of the orbit of this new system is larger and is about the size of the area that includes the Sun and Mercury, which is twice the usual size. The new double pulsar system has been named PSR J1930-1852 and is fascinating to astronomers and physicists as it offers insight into the different ways these kinds of systems are formed.
Although we are not yet commercially able to travel to space, we can see the world from above through flight.