Lovell Telescope helps ‘citizen scientists’ make an exciting find

13 Aug 2010

Scientists from the University of Manchester have helped classify the first pulsar ever discovered by members of the public.

The world-famous Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank
The world-famous Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank

The spinning pulsar was discovered hidden in data gathered by the Arecibo Observatory by an American couple and a German using Einstein@Home, a computer programme which uses donated time from the home and office computers of 250,000 volunteers from 192 different countries.

The citizens credited with the discovery are Chris and Helen Colvin, of Ames, Iowa and Daniel Gebhardt, of Universität Mainz, Musikinformatik, Germany.

Their computers, along with 500,000 others from around the world, analyse data for Einstein@Home.

The new pulsar  – called PSR J2007+2722 – is a neutron star that rotates 41 times per second.  It is in the Milky Way, approximately 17,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Vulpecula.

Working with collaborators around the world a team at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, part of The University of Manchester, used the 76m Lovell Telescope to help rapidly and accurately identify that, unlike most pulsars that spin as quickly and steadily, PSR J2007+2722 sits alone in space, and has no orbiting companion star.

Astronomers consider it especially interesting since it is likely a recycled pulsar that lost its companion. However they can not rule out that it may be a young pulsar born with a lower-than-usual magnetic field.

Professor Andrew Lyne of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics says "Either way, this is bound to be an extremely valuable discovery in helping us to understand the basic physics of neutron stars and how they form"

Dr Benjamin Stappers, from the School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “It is fantastic to be able to use the Lovell telescope to help to rapidly determine the nature of this interesting pulsar which has been found in such a unique way”

Einstein@Home, based at the Centre for Gravitation and Cosmology at the University of Wisconsin -- Milwaukee, and at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute, Hannover), has been searching for gravitational waves in data from the US LIGO Observatory since 2005.

Starting in March 2009, Einstein@Home also began searching for signals from radio pulsars in astronomical observations from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Arecibo is the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, and is managed by Cornell University. About one-third of Einstein@Home’s computing capacity is used to search Arecibo data.

Notes for editors

The paper, “Pulsar Discovery by Global Volunteer Computing,” is authored by Allen’s graduate student Benjamin Knispel, from the Albert Einstein Institute, Germany; Bruce Allen; James M. Cordes, Cornell professor of astronomy and chair of the Pulsar ALFA Consortium, and a team of collaborators.

It announces the first genuine astronomical discovery by a public volunteer distributed computing project.

The pulsar group at The University of Manchester and their use of the Lovell Telescope is supported through a rolling grant from STFC.

Radio pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars that emit lighthouse-like beams of radio waves that can sweep past the Earth as often as 716 times per second. They were discovered in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell and Antony Hewish. (Coincidentally, the first one to be discovered was also in the constellation of Vulpecula.) 

Pulsars that have orbiting companions are called binary pulsars.  They have been used to verify Einstein’s theory of general relativity to very high precision. Further information on pulsars can be found at The Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics Pulsar Group .

For the Einstein@Home project, data are sent from the Cornell Center for Advanced Computing to the Albert Einstein Institute in Hannover via high-bandwidth Internet links, pre-processed and then distributed to computers around the world. The results are returned to AEI and Cornell for further investigation.

The Pulsar ALFA (PALFA) Consortium was formed in 2003 to conduct a large scale pulsar survey with the Arecibo telescope.  It includes astronomers at twenty universities, institutes and observatories worldwide.

Jodrell Bank Observatory work is supported by funding from the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics is part of the School of Physics and Astronomy at The University of Manchester. Jodrell Bank is home to the Lovell Radio Telescope and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility which is operated by the University on behalf of STFC.

STFC is the UK's strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four areas of science - particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science. STFC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), and the European Space Agency.

It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank observatory.