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

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology 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.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More