News / Science & Technology

Citizen Scientists Discover Rare Pulsar Using Home Computers

This artists drawing zooms into a neutron star and its accretion disk to show a millisecond pulsar in close-up.
This artists drawing zooms into a neutron star and its accretion disk to show a millisecond pulsar in close-up.
Jessica Berman

Three citizen-scientists volunteering their personal computer time to a giant U.S. radio observatory have discovered a rare pulsar - an energetic young star that rotates dozens of times per second.  The distant object was found among thousands of hours of data collected by the giant Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico.  Developers of the computer-sharing program are hopeful other unusual space objects will be found through this worldwide network of astronomy enthusiasts.

It is called Einstein@Home. Supported with grants from the National Science Foundation, the program harnesses the enormous processing power of tens of thousands of idle home computers, sifting through massive stores of data collected by Arecibo, the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope.

An estimated quarter of a million volunteers in 192 countries have downloaded the free software to date, onto roughly half a million personal computers.  The software quietly runs computations in the background, searching for unusual objects such as pulsars.

The newly-discovered pulsar - called J2007 - is a neutron star that spins on its axis 41 times per second.  It's located in Vulpecula, a constellation 17,000 light years from Earth.  One light year is the distance a beam of light travels in a year -about 9 and a half trillion kilometers.

Jim Cordes is head of the astronomy program at Cornell.  Cordes says J2007 is unusual in that it does not have a companion star like most pulsars. "We think it came about from originally being in a binary system that is orbiting another star.  Its evolution was influenced by the other star.  And then the other star exploded as a supernova and the two stars went off in their own direction," he said.

J2007 was discovered by Chris and Helen Colvin of Ames, Iowa.  The couple owns one of the two computers that spotted the pulsar among the mountains of Aricebo data in mid-June.  The third person who discovered the Pulsar is Daniel Gebhardt, who lives in Germany.

Helen Colvin says both she and her husband work in the computer field but are not professional scientists.

Colvin says there were no flashing lights on their computer screen telling them they had discovered J2007, but they did receive an email from Bruce Allen, who directs the Einstein@Home to confirm their discovery. "The program itself doesn't indicate anything special about the data when it processes it.  So, we actually found out about it from a letter," she said.

There are now more than a billion personal computers around the world sitting idle much of the time, according to Bruce Allen of the Center for Gravitation and Cosmology at the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany.

Allen directs Einstein@Home.  He says the data from Arecibo are divided into work units that are given a special number that's recorded in the database.

When a work unit is sent to a volunteer's computer, Allen says another number is entered into the database that uniquely identifies the computer receiving the data.  And Allen says a third number identifies the results when they are sent back to the project for review. "So, we're not only able to say which volunteer did that particular piece of work, we also can identify which computer did it.  We can even tell you to the second when the computer finished the computation," he said.

Allen says all discoveries are verified by a second home computer somewhere else in the world.

The software that runs Einstein@Home was developed by David Anderson of the University of California's Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory.  Anderson says the project's ultimate goal is to find neutron star pairs with orbits of an hour or less, so astronomers can actually observe Albert Einstein's theory of relativity in action.

A second major goal, says Anderson, is to find a pulsar orbiting a black hole, an object whose gravitational field is so strong, nothing can escape its pull, including light, and whose concentrated mass actually distorts  the fabric of space and time. "A black hole is something like five or ten solar masses of material.  We would love to monitor a pulsar and explore the space-time around a black hole.  Obviously, those are rare objects but we have the potential of finding them in the Einstein@Home analysis," he said.

An article describing the discovery of a new pulsar by citizen scientists with the Einstein@Home program is published this week in the journal Science.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs