High school students find pulsar with widest known orbit

A student research team discovered a rare double neutron star system.
By Kathy Fey | May 04, 2015
A pair of high school student researchers located a pulsar with the widest orbit ever seen around another neutron star. The team discovered the previously unknown pulsar by analyzing data collected from the National Science Foundation's Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope.

According to Astronomy Magazine, further study of the pulsar by astronomers showed that the pulsar's orbit around a neighboring neutron star is the widest orbit yet seen in such a star system. Double neutron star systems are rare, and this discovery will allow astronomers a valuable glimpse into the formation and evolution of such systems.

"Pulsars are some of the most extreme objects in the universe," Joe Swiggum of West Virginia University said. "The students' discovery shows one of these objects in a really unique set of circumstances."

About 10 percent of observed pulsars orbit another star, and in most cases, the other star is a white dwarf. A very rare few have been seen to orbit other neutron stars. Astronomers believe such rarity results from the process by which neutron stars, including pulsars, are created.

Pulsars are the spinning remains of massive stars that expired as explosive supernovae. When a star goes supernova, it often gets sent hurtling out of any orbit it had been maintaining, due to a lopsided explosion. This dramatically decreases the chances of such a neutron star maintaining orbit with another.

The recently discovered pulsar with the wide orbit was found by students attending the National Science Foundation's Pulsar Search Collaboratory workshop. Cecilia McGough from Strasburg High School in Virginia and De'Shang Ray from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Maryland collaborated to make the discovery.

The students worked with scientists using the Green Bank Telescope to determine that pulsar PSR J1930-1852 appeared to be orbiting something that was not visible as a white dwarf or Sun-like star would be.

"Given the lack of any visible signals and the careful review of the timing of the pulsar, we concluded that the most likely companion was another neutron star... Its orbit is more than twice as large as that of any previously known double neutron star system," said Swiggum. "The pulsar's parameters give us valuable clues about how a system like this could have formed. Discoveries of outlier systems like J1930-1852 give us a clearer picture of the full range of possibilities in binary evolution."

The students who made the discovery are now both in college, and reflect on their research with Green Bank as a valuable experience in science.

"This experience taught me that you do not have to be an 'Einstein' to be good at science," said McGough. "What you have to be is focused, passionate, and dedicated to your work."

"As we look up into the sky and study the universe, we try to understand what's out there," said Ray. "This experience has helped me to explore, to imagine, and to dream what could be and what we haven't seen."

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