Youngest binary pulsar

Considering all the great stuff that has been announced at the AAS meeting, I haven't seen anyone mention the discovery of the youngest binary pulsar found to date.

A pulsar is an end-product of a large star (large compared to the Sun) exploding as a supernova; while the outer parts of the exploding star blast off into space, the middle collapses down to form a rotating neutron star. If the magnetic fields are strong enough, these neutron stars will emit beams of radio waves and are the radio-wave equivalents to lighthouses. This flashing (or ticking if you connect your radio telescope to a speaker) nature gives them the name pulsar.

There are around 1700 pulsars known to date, many of which have companions. These are known as binary pulsars and should not be confused with the double pulsar. The latest discovery is exciting because the pulsar in the binary system seems to be only about 112,000 years old. That is very young by the standards of astronomers. In fact, it is only slightly younger than the modern human - Homo sapiens sapiens - is thought to be. Finding such a young binary pulsar suggests that these systems may be more common than was previously thought (although it may just be chance) and this provides good news for the gravitational wave detectors such as GEO600, LIGO and LISA.

These instruments are (and will be) trying to detect very slight ripples in the fabric of space caused by large moving masses such as neutron stars or black holes. This is a painfully difficult thing to do because the ripples are so tiny and you have to seriously dampen out oscillations if you are to stand a chance of detecting anything. Despite the gravitational wave astronomers improving their instruments enormously over recent years they are still a long way off being able to detect anything. But, the pulsar observations help from the other direction. The new result hints that there may be more binary pulsars than were thought, so there will be more gravitational waves out there to be detected. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, a gravitational wave will be detected and then we will have a whole new window on the universe.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 14th Jan 2006 (00:41 UTC) | Permalink
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