Artist’s concept of the pulsar and its planet. The system could fit into our Sun, represented by the yellow surface.
What’s the News: An international team of astronomers has found an exotic planet possibly made of diamond, located about 4,000 light-years away from Earth. The researchers believe that the unusual planet was once a sun-like star, transformed into its current state by its hungry stellar companion, a millisecond pulsar.
August has been quite the success story for the use of crowdsourcing—farming out work to willing humans or bored computers—to make scientific discoveries. Last week a study showed how citizen scientists helped unravel the structure of proteins by playing a video game. Today, a study in Science documents a newly discovered pulsar—newly discovered by the computers of amateurs, that is.
This find was the first of its kind for Einstein@Home, a project that uses the downtime of a network of volunteer computers to hunt for gravity waves and radio signals. (The more famous SETI@Home uses computer free time to seek out alien signals.) The idling PC of Chris and Helen Colvin of Ames, Iowa, detected the signature of the pulsar now called J2007 for short, which was confirmed by a computer in Germany owned by Daniel Gebhardt.
Three recent studies raised hopes that physicists had caught the first glimpses of dark matter, but the somewhat contradictory results guarantee that researchers will be puzzling over the issue for some time to come. The latest results come from NASA’s orbiting Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which was launched last June. The evidence is a reported excess of high-energy electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons, which could be created as dark matter particles annihilate or decay [Nature News].
Peter Michelson, principal investigator for the instrument on Fermi that made the detection, cautions that his group is not yet claiming to have found a smoking gun for dark matter. The signal could also come from more mundane sources nearby, such as pulsars, the spinning remnants of supernovae. “But if it isn’t pulsars, it is some new physics,” says Michelson [Nature News]. The new findings are published in Physical Review Letters. Meanwhile, a satellite named PAMELA recently detected higher than expected numbers of positrons, which seems to corroborate the Fermi findings. But results from a balloon experiment conducted high over Antarctica last year add a dash of confusion to the mix.
The mysterious stuff known as dark matter may have left a calling card at the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere where a space-faring satellite named PAMELA could pick it up. Researchers are reporting that PAMELA detected a high number of the subatomic particles called positrons, the positively-charged counterpoints to electrons, which could have been created by collisions between dark matter particles. “PAMELA found a number of positrons much higher than expected,” the mission’s principal investigator Piergiorgio Picozza [said]. “Many think this could be a signal from dark matter” [SPACE.com]. But of course, others think there’s a more mundane explanation.
Dark matter is one of the greatest enigmas in astrophysics: It cannot be observed directly, so researchers have to study its effects on normal matter to try to deduce what it’s made of. The top candidates for dark matter, the heavy but invisible stuff that makes up 23 percent of the universe, are weakly-interacting massive particles. Contrary to their WIMPy name, when two of these particles collide, they annihilate each other in a burst of energy and propel a cloud of matter and antimatter particles into space. The theory has been a favorite of physicists for years, but until now, no one had detected evidence of these collisions [Wired].
An enormous helium balloon floating about 24 miles above Antarctica has detected a mix of high-energy electrons so exotic that researchers say the particles must have been created by some fascinating process: They may have been formed when dark matter particles collided and annihilated each other, or else a surprisingly close astronomical object like a pulsar could be spitting the electrons at Earth.
Researchers can’t yet determine which answer is correct, but say the dark matter explanation is more exciting. Dark matter is one of astrophysics’ greatest enigmas. It is thought to be five times more common than visible matter, but there is no proof of what it is made of. The existence of dark matter has largely been inferred from its gravitational effects, such as the fact that most galaxies have enough mass to remain as well-defined objects despite having too little visible matter to account for the necessary gravity [National Geographic News]. If the research balloon did detect the signature of dark matter through the particles left over from collisions, it would be the closest researchers have ever gotten to seeing the mysterious stuff.
The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope only settled into its orbit a few months ago, but it’s already producing results that are delighting astronomers. Yesterday, NASA announced that Fermi had found a strange pulsar (a fast-spinning neutron star) by detecting only the gamma rays it emits. This is a first, NASA explains. Although astronomers have catalogued nearly 1800 pulsars, this is the first pulsar that seems to emit only gamma-ray radiation. Most other pulsars have been found using radio telescopes, although some also beam energy in visible light and X-rays [New Scientist].
Neutron stars are the small and incredibly dense bodies formed when massive stars explode into supernovas; perhaps the oddest of neutron stars are pulsars, which send out jets of radiation from their magnetic poles that sweep across Earth’s line of sight as the star spins on its axis. The newfound pulsar, which sits 4,600 light-years away in the constellation Cepheus, rotates at about a million miles an hour, and its beam of gamma rays reaches Earth about three times a second [National Geographic News]. Pulsars are often compared to lighthouses for the way their beams flash across our telescopes (see NASA animation).
A new study of a pair of neutron stars has proven that Albert Einstein got the details right on his theory of general relativity, which describes the interactions of gravity, space, and time in our universe. A team of astrophysicists examined two newly discovered neutron stars, the small and dense stellar bodies formed after a supernova collapses, and found that Einstein accurately predicted their movements more than 90 years before the unusual star system was first sighted.
In Einstein’s relativistic universe, matter curves space and slows down time, and the speed of light remains the only constant. But those are the big effects. The theory of relativity also includes some more esoteric details, one of which is called spin precession. The idea goes like this: Two massive bodies orbiting near each other will warp space enough to disturb the central axis around which both are moving, causing them to begin wobbling just like spinning tops. Strong gravity creates this so-called precession, and the more massive the objects, the easier the precession is to observe [ScienceNow Daily News].