Boffins baffled over pulsar with 'split personality'

No explanation for its changing behaviour

40 Reg comments Got Tips?

A pulsar that randomly and without warning dramatically changes its pattern of radio wave and X-ray emissions has surprised a team of astronomers, who wrote that it "challenges all proposed pulsar emission theories".

A pulsar with glowing cones of radiation

Pulsars are spinning neutron stars the size of a small city, with a mass roughly comparable to our Sun. They have a strong magnetic field that is around a million times stronger than what scientists can reproduce in labs on Earth.

They emit oppositely directed beams of radiation from their magnetic poles. Just like a lighthouse, the star spins and the beam sweeps past Earth, so that we just see a brief flash. Some pulsars produce radiation across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, including X-ray and radio wavelengths.

Despite having studied pulsars for over 45 years ago, boffins still don't know exactly how they shine the way they do.

Scientists from The Netherlands Institute for Space Research, the University of Manchester and the University of Amsterdam examined PSR B0943+10, one of the first pulsars to be discovered.

"The behaviour of this pulsar is quite startling, it’s as if it has two distinct personalities," Ben Stappers of Manchester university said.

The team found that X-rays did change synchronously with the radio emission, but in the state where the radio signal is strong and the pulses are clear, the X-rays were weak, and where radio was weak, the X-rays intensified.

All of this happens within seconds and Lucien Kuiper in the Netherlands said the evidence strongly suggests that a temporary "hotspot" close to the pulsar's magnetic pole switches on and off with the change of state.

“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," Stapper added.

"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.”

The full study can be found in Science. ®

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR WEEKLY TECH NEWSLETTER


Keep Reading

Unprotected quantum 'puters may hit 4ms brick wall, thanks to background radiation slashing qubit lifespans

Get ready to armor up these systems, scientists warn

Captain, the computer has identified 250 alien stars that infiltrated our galaxy – actual science, not science-fiction

Neural network trained to spot emigrated suns in our Milky Way uncovers mysterious Nyx collective

What could power an early-warning system for harmful radiation storms in Earth's Van Allen belts? AI? Let's see, say Los Alamos boffins

Code needed because 'we no longer have direct measurements about what’s happening in outer electron belt'

RIP Freeman Dyson: The super-boffin who applied his mathematical brain to nuclear magic, quantum physics, space travel, and more

Video Science's civil rebel dies aged 96

Ofcom measured UK's 5G radiation and found that, no, it won't give you cancer

Dangerous levels of EMF: Evidence-based Measurement Findings

Broken lab equipment led boffins to solve a 58-year-old physics problem by mistake

The mystery of manipulating nuclear spins with electric fields could make it easier to build quantum computers in the future

Absolute mad lads are teaching physics to AI because how else will it learn to solve real-world problems (like humans)

Can't take over the galaxy if you don't know how it works, innit?

Antarctic science put on ice by coronavirus – next summer's expeditions restricted to essentials and robots

Australia just wants to get supplies in and keep people moving safely

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2020