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Chameleon pulsar baffles astronomers

25 Jan 2013

A pulsar that is able, without warning, to dramatically change the way in which it shines has been identified by an international team including scientists from The University of Manchester.

Pulsars are small spinning stars that are about the size of a city
Pulsars are small spinning stars that are about the size of a city

Using a satellite X-ray telescope combined with terrestrial radio telescopes the pulsar was found to flip on a roughly half-hour timescale between two extreme states; one dominated by X-ray pulses, the other by a highly-organised pattern of radio pulses.

The research was led by Professor Wim Hermsen from The Netherlands Institute for Space Research and the University of Amsterdam and will appear in the journal Science on the 25th January 2012.

Researchers from Jodrell Bank Observatory, as well as institutions around the world, used simultaneous observations with the X-ray satellite XMM-Newton and two radio telescopes; the LOw Frequency Array (LOFAR) in the Netherlands and the Giant Meter Wave Telescope (GMRT) in India to reveal this so far unique behaviour.

Pulsars are small spinning stars that are about the size of a city, around 20 km in diameter. They emit oppositely directed beams of radiation from their magnetic poles. Just like a lighthouse, as the star spins and the beam sweeps repeatedly past the Earth we see a brief flash.

Some pulsars produce radiation across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, including at X-ray and radio wavelengths. Despite being discovered more than 45 years ago the exact mechanism by which pulsars shine is still unknown. 

It has been known for some time that some radio-emitting pulsars flip their behaviour between two (or even more) states, changing the pattern and intensity of their radio pulses. The moment of flip is both unpredictable and sudden. It is also known from satellite-borne telescopes that a handful of radio pulsars can also be detected at X-ray frequencies. However, the X-ray signal is so weak that nothing is known of its variability.

To find out if the X-rays could also flip the scientists studied a particular pulsar called PSR B0943+10, one of the first to be discovered. It has radio pulses which change in form and brightness every few hours with some of the changes happening within about a second.

Dr Ben Stappers from The University of Manchester’s School of Physics and Astronomy said: “The behaviour of this pulsar is quite startling, it’s as if it has two distinct personalities.  As PSR B0943+10 is one of the few pulsars also known to emit X-rays, finding out how this higher energy radiation behaves as the radio changes could provide new insight into the nature of the emission process.”

Since the source is a weak X-ray emitter, the team used the most sensitive X-ray telescope in existence, the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton on board a spacecraft orbiting the Earth. The observations took place over six separate sessions of about six hours in duration. To identify the exact moment of flip in the pulsar’s radio behaviour the X-ray observations were tracked simultaneously with two of the largest radio telescopes in the world, LOFAR and the GMRT.

What the scientists found was that whilst the X-rays did indeed change their behaviour  at the same time as the radio emission, as might have been expected, in the state where the radio signal is strong and organised the X-rays were weak, and when the radio emission switched to weak the X-rays got brighter.

Commenting on the study’s findings the project leader Wim Hermsen says: “To our surprise we found that when the brightness of the radio emission halved, the X-ray emission brightened by a factor of two! Furthermore the intense X-rays have a very different character from those in the radio-bright state, since they seem to be thermal in origin and to pulse with the neutron star’s rotation period.”

Dr Stappers says this is an exciting discovery: “As well as brightening in the X-rays we discovered that the X-ray emission also shows pulses, something not seen when the radio emission is bright. This was the opposite of what we had expected. I’ve likened the changes in the pulsar to a chameleon. Like the animal the star changes in reaction to its environment, such as a change in temperature.”

Geoff Wright from the University of Sussex adds: “Our observations strongly suggest that a temporary "hotspot” appears close to the pulsar’s magnetic pole which switches on and off with the change of state. But why a pulsar should undergo such dramatic and unpredictable changes is completely unknown.”

The next step for the researchers is to look at other objects which have similar behaviour to investigate what happens to the X-ray emission. Later this year there will be another round of simultaneous X-ray and radio observations of a second pulsar. These observations will include the Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

Notes for editors

Please note the embargo date and time of Thursday 24 January 19:00 GMT

Dr Ben Stappers co-leads the radio pulsar project with the LOFAR telescope. He is available for interviews.

Images of the pulsar can be obtained from the press office.

This research was a global project spanning a number of countries. The research was led by Wim Hermsen (SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, UvA), Lucien Kuiper and Jelle de Plaa (SRON), Jason Hessels and Joeri van Leeuwen (ASTRON en UvA), Dipanjan Mitra (NCFRA-TIFR, Pune, India), Joanna Rankin (University of Vermont, Burlington, VS), Ben Stappers (University of Manchester, UK), Geoffrey Wright (University of Sussex, UK). The Pulsar Working Group and the Builders Group from the  LOFAR-telescope, which was at the time still in the commissioning phase,  gave support to these observations.

The results of this research, entitled: Synchronous X-ray and Radio Mode Switches: a Rapid Transformation of the Pulsar Magnetosphere will be published in Science on Friday 25 January.
 
For more information or interview and image requests please contact:

Daniel Cochlin
Media Relations Officer
The University of Manchester
0161 275 8387
daniel.cochlin@manchester.ac.uk