A pulsar (from pulse and -ar as in quasar) is a highly magnetized, rotating neutron star or white dwarf, that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. This radiation can be observed only when the beam of emission is pointing toward Earth (much the way a lighthouse can be seen only when the light is pointed in the direction of an observer), and is responsible for the pulsed appearance of emission. Neutron stars are very dense, and have short, regular rotational periods. This produces a very precise interval between pulses that range from milliseconds to seconds for an individual pulsar. Pulsars are believed to be one of the candidates of the observed ultra-high-energy cosmic rays.
The precise periods of pulsars make them very useful tools. Observations of a pulsar in a binary neutron star system were used to indirectly confirm the existence of gravitational radiation. The first extrasolar planets were discovered around a pulsar, PSR B1257+12. Certain types of pulsars rival atomic clocks in their accuracy in keeping time.
How Pulsars are Formed?
The events leading to the formation of a pulsar begin when the core of a massive star is compressed during a supernova, which collapses into a neutron star. The neutron star retains most of its angular momentum, and since it has only a tiny fraction of its progenitor’s radius (and therefore its moment of inertia is sharply reduced), it is formed with very high rotation speed. A beam of radiation is emitted along the magnetic axis of the pulsar, which spins along with the rotation of the neutron star. The magnetic axis of the pulsar determines the direction of the electromagnetic beam, with the magnetic axis not necessarily being the same as its rotational axis. This misalignment causes the beam to be seen once for every rotation of the neutron star, which leads to the “pulsed” nature of its appearance.
In rotation-powered pulsars, the beam originates from the rotational energy of the neutron star, which generates an electrical field from the movement of the very strong magnetic field, resulting in the acceleration of protons and electrons on the star surface and the creation of an electromagnetic beam emanating from the poles of the magnetic field. This rotation slows down over time as electromagnetic power gets emitt. When a pulsar’s spin period slows down sufficiently, the radio pulsar mechanism is believed to turn off (the so-called “death line”). This turn-off seems to take place after about 10–100 million years, which means of all the neutron stars born in the 13.6 billion year age of the universe, around 99% no longer pulsate.
Though the general picture of pulsars as rapidly rotating neutron stars is widely accepted, Werner Becker of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics said in 2006, “The theory of how pulsars emit their radiation is still in its infancy, even after nearly forty years of work.”
Categories of pulsar
Three distinct classes of pulsars are currently known to astronomers, according to the source of the power of the electromagnetic radiation:
- Rotation-powered pulsars, where the loss of rotational energy of the star provides the power.
- Accretion-powered pulsars (accounting for most but not all X-ray pulsars), where the gravitational potential energy of accreted matter is the power source (producing X-rays that are observable from the Earth).
- Magnetars, where the decay of an extremely strong magnetic field provides the electromagnetic power.
Although all three classes of objects are neutron stars, their observable behavior and the underlying physics are quite different. There are, however, connections. For example, X-ray pulsars are probably old rotationally-powered pulsars that have already lost most of their power, and have only become visible again after their binary companions had expanded and began transferring matter on to the neutron star. The process of accretion can in turn transfer enough angular momentum to the neutron star to “recycle” it as a rotation-powered millisecond pulsar
As this matter lands on the neutron star, it is thought to “bury” the magnetic field of the neutron star (although the details are unclear), leaving millisecond pulsars with magnetic fields 1000-10,000 times weaker than average pulsars. This low magnetic field is less effective at slowing the pulsar’s rotation, so millisecond pulsars live for billions of years, making them the oldest known pulsars. Millisecond pulsars are seen in globular clusters, which stopped forming neutron stars billions of years ago.
Of interest to the study of the state of the matter in a neutron star are the glitches observed in the rotation velocity of the neutron star. This velocity is decreasing slowly but steadily, except by sudden variations. One model put forward to explain these glitches is that they are the result of “starquakes” that adjust the crust of the neutron star. Models where the glitch is due to a decoupling of the possibly superconducting interior of the star have also been advanced. In both cases, the star’s moment of inertia changes, but its angular momentum does not, resulting in a change in rotation rate.
Applications of pulsar
The discovery of pulsars allowed astronomers to study an object never observed before, the neutron star. This kind of object is the only place where the behavior of matter at nuclear density can be observed (though not directly). Also, millisecond pulsars have allowed a test of general relativity in conditions of an intense gravitational field.