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

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs