National Radio Astronomy Observatory
P.O. Box O
Socorro, NM 87801
March 12, 2003
Dave Finley, National Radio Astronomy Observatory
George Zamora, New Mexico Tech
David Brand, Cornell University
In a major breakthrough for understanding what one of them calls "the most exotic environment in the Universe," a team of astronomers has discovered that powerful radio bursts in pulsars are generated by structures as small as a beach ball.
"These are by far the smallest objects ever detected outside our solar system," said Tim Hankins, leader of the research team, which studied the pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula, more than 6,000 light-years from Earth. "The small size of these regions is inconsistent with all but one proposed theory for how the radio emission is generated," he added.
The other members of the team are Jeff Kern, James Weatherall and Jean Eilek. Hankins was a visiting scientist at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico at the time the pulsar observations were made. He and Eilek are professors at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (New Mexico Tech) in Socorro, NM. Kern is a graduate student at NM Tech and a predoctoral fellow at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro. Weatherall is an adjunct professor at NM Tech, currently working at the Federal Aviation Administration. The astronomers reported their discovery in the March 13 edition of the scientific journal Nature.
Pulsars are superdense neutron stars, the remnants of massive stars that exploded as supernovae. Pulsars emit powerful beams of radio waves and light. As the neutron star spins, the beam sweeps through space like the beam of a lighthouse. When such a beam sweeps across the Earth, astronomers see a pulse from the pulsar. The Crab pulsar spins some 33 times every second.
British radio astronomers discovered pulsars in 1967, one receiving the Nobel Prize for the discovery. In the years since, the method by which pulsars produce their powerful beams of electromagnetic radiation has remained a mystery.
With the help of engineers at the NRAO, Hankins and his team designed and built specialized electronic equipment that allowed them to study the pulsar's radio pulses on extremely small time scales. They took this equipment to the National Science Foundation's giant, 1,000-foot-diameter radio telescope at Arecibo. With their equipment, they analyzed the Crab pulsar's superstrong "giant" pulses, breaking them down into tiny time segments.
The researchers discovered that some of the "giant" pulses contain subpulses that last no longer than two nanoseconds. That means, they say, that the regions in which these subpulses are generated can be no larger than about two feet across -- the distance that light could travel in two nanoseconds.
This fact, the researchers say, is critically important to understanding how the powerful radio emission is generated.
A pulsar's magnetosphere -- the region above the neutron star's magnetic poles where the radio waves are generated -- is "the most exotic environment in the Universe," said Kern. In this environment, matter exists as a plasma, in which electrically charged particles are free to respond to the very strong electric and magnetic fields in the star's atmosphere.
The very short subpulses the researchers detected could only be generated, they say, by a strange process in which density waves in the plasma interact with their own electrical field, becoming progressively denser until they reach a point at which they "collapse explosively" into superstrong bursts of radio waves.
"None of the other proposed mechanisms can produce such short pulses," Eilek said. "The ability to examine these pulses on such short time scales has given us a new window through which to study pulsar radio emission," she added.
The Crab pulsar is one of only three pulsars known to emit superstrong "giant" pulses. "Giant" pulses occur occasionally among the steady but much weaker "normal" pulses coming from the neutron star.
Some of the brief subpulses within the Crab's "giant" pulses are second only to the Sun in their radio brightness in the sky. Although the mechanism that converts the plasma energy to radio waves in the Crab's "giant" pulses may be unique to the Crab pulsar, it is feasible that all radio pulsars may operate the same way. The research team now is observing signals from other pulsars to see if they are fundamentally different. The subpulses in the Crab's "giant" pulses are so strong that the team's equipment could detect them even if they originated not in our own Milky Way Galaxy, but in a nearby galaxy.
The Crab Nebula is a cloud of glowing debris from a star that was seen to explode on July 4, 1054. Chinese astronomers noted the bright new star that outshone the planet Venus and was visible in daylight for 23 days. A rock carving at New Mexico's Chaco Canyon probably indicates that Native American skywatchers also noted the bright intruder in the sky.
The nebula was discovered by John Bevis in 1731 and independently rediscovered by French astronomer Charles Messier on August 28, 1758. Messier made the Crab Nebula (named because of its crab-like shape) the first object in his famous catalog of non-stellar objects, a catalog widely popular among amateur astronomers with small telescopes.
In 1948, radio emission was discovered coming from the Crab Nebula. In 1968, astronomers at Arecibo Observatory discovered the pulsar in the heart of the nebula. The following year, astronomers at Arizona's Steward Observatory discovered visible-light pulses also coming from the pulsar, making this the first pulsar found to emit visible light in addition to radio waves.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc. The Arecibo Observatory is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which is operated by Cornell University under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation..