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Evolution of the Crab PulsarNearly 1,000 years ago, a brilliant ‘new’ star showed itself in the skies above our blue planet. The event was recorded by Native American, European and Chinese observers, and the beacon was bright enough to be seen in daytime for almost a month. We now know that what they had witnessed was an exploding star. We also know that the explosion left behind a remnant we call the Crab Nebula, and that at the heart of that nebula lies a spinning neutron star, pulsing out radio waves and gamma rays.The pulsar is only 25 kilometers (15 miles) in diameter, but has a mass 1 million times greater than Earth. It now rotates 30 times per second, and as it spins, the radio waves it emits flash at us like a lighthouse. A single radio telescope on Earth has been used to observe the Crab pulsar almost every single day for the last 31 years. That is a much larger fraction of a pulsars lifetime than astronomers usually get to study. During that time, the pulsating neutron star has rotated 30 billion times. The most accurate observations have been made over the last 22 years, and they show a small, gradual change in the pulse spacing.The pulses come in pairs, and the long-term study shows that the spacing of the pairs of flashes is increasing by 0.6 degrees per century. Scientists led by Professor Andrew Lyne at The University of Manchester have shown that this indicates that the magnetic pole of the pulsar is moving toward the equator. Lyne says that the biggest surprise is how rapidly the change is happening, especially when models show that the interior of pulsars is superconducting and that their magnetic fields should be frozen into a fixed position.Dr Patrick Weltevrede, also of The University of Manchester, thinks that these studies will lend great understanding to the evolution of pulsars. “The Crab pulsar is iconic; it is seen across the entire electromagnetic spectrum and is an exemplar and so this result provides vital clues about how these cosmic lighthouses shine and explaining a long-standing mystery about the way pulsars slow down over time,” he says. The radio telescope used for the decades-long survey is the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England. The 12 meter (42 ft) dish was originally installed at Woomera Rocket Test Range in Australia in 1974, where it tracked the Blue Streak missile. In 1981, it was donated to The University of Manchester, dismantled, transported and re-erected in Cheshire.-JFImage caption: Artist’s conception of the pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula, using a Hubble image as the background.Image credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA) / NASA / ESASource View high resolution

Evolution of the Crab Pulsar

Nearly 1,000 years ago, a brilliant ‘new’ star showed itself in the skies above our blue planet. The event was recorded by Native American, European and Chinese observers, and the beacon was bright enough to be seen in daytime for almost a month. We now know that what they had witnessed was an exploding star. We also know that the explosion left behind a remnant we call the Crab Nebula, and that at the heart of that nebula lies a spinning neutron star, pulsing out radio waves and gamma rays.

The pulsar is only 25 kilometers (15 miles) in diameter, but has a mass 1 million times greater than Earth. It now rotates 30 times per second, and as it spins, the radio waves it emits flash at us like a lighthouse. A single radio telescope on Earth has been used to observe the Crab pulsar almost every single day for the last 31 years. That is a much larger fraction of a pulsars lifetime than astronomers usually get to study. During that time, the pulsating neutron star has rotated 30 billion times. The most accurate observations have been made over the last 22 years, and they show a small, gradual change in the pulse spacing.

The pulses come in pairs, and the long-term study shows that the spacing of the pairs of flashes is increasing by 0.6 degrees per century. Scientists led by Professor Andrew Lyne at The University of Manchester have shown that this indicates that the magnetic pole of the pulsar is moving toward the equator. Lyne says that the biggest surprise is how rapidly the change is happening, especially when models show that the interior of pulsars is superconducting and that their magnetic fields should be frozen into a fixed position.

Dr Patrick Weltevrede, also of The University of Manchester, thinks that these studies will lend great understanding to the evolution of pulsars. “The Crab pulsar is iconic; it is seen across the entire electromagnetic spectrum and is an exemplar and so this result provides vital clues about how these cosmic lighthouses shine and explaining a long-standing mystery about the way pulsars slow down over time,” he says. 

The radio telescope used for the decades-long survey is the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England. The 12 meter (42 ft) dish was originally installed at Woomera Rocket Test Range in Australia in 1974, where it tracked the Blue Streak missile. In 1981, it was donated to The University of Manchester, dismantled, transported and re-erected in Cheshire.

-JF

Image caption: Artist’s conception of the pulsar at the center of the Crab Nebula, using a Hubble image as the background.

Image credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA) / NASA / ESA

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