Advertisement

Backyard astronomer aids study of odd millisecond pulsar binary system

"The dataset was unlike anything I had ever seen, both in terms of quality and timespan," said astronomer John Antoniadis.

By
Brooks Hays
An illustration shows a spinning pulsar, on the right, pulling material from an oddly shaped companion, on the left. Photo by NASA
An illustration shows a spinning pulsar, on the right, pulling material from an oddly shaped companion, on the left. Photo by NASA

TORONTO, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- An amateur astronomer earned a co-author credit in a new research paper, published this week in the Astrophysical Journal.

Andre van Staden, a backyard astronomer from South Africa, helped John Antoniadis, a research fellow at the University of Toronto's Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, study the unusual pattern of a millisecond pulsar binary system.

Advertisement

Van Staden and Antoniadis were compelled by the unusual nature of the MSP system, which consists of the fastest-spinning pulsar of its kind and an oddly shaped companion star.

Their findings uncovered several more peculiarities. First, the duo realized the companion's quivering brightness couldn't be explained by the rhythm of its orbit. They realized its variable brightness was caused by starspots, or sunspots. The companion's starspots are considerably larger than the spots found on Earth's sun. The discovery -- the first of its kind -- suggests the system's companion star has a strong magnetic field.

RELATED Study: Dark matter may be more smoothly distributed throughout cosmos

Van Staden's commitment and observational abilities were invaluable to Antoniadis. Professional astronomers often don't have the time or resources to devote high-powered equipment to the observation of a single object for a long period of time. Van Staden did.

Advertisement

"The dataset was unlike anything I had ever seen, both in terms of quality and timespan," Antoniadis said in a news release. "And I urged Andre to continue observing for as long as possible."

Astronomers have struggled to understand the seemingly bizarre behaviors of millisecond pulsar binary systems, specifically their tendency to turn off and on. As the systems evolves and the spinning pulsar grows by stealing material from its companion, its output in the form of radiation and stellar wind becomes stronger. Eventually, this outflow stems the flow of material from its companion.

RELATED Study finds birthplace of largest galaxies in the universe

Instead of stealing material, the larger, more powerful pulsar begins to strip away the companion's mass through the force of its radiation and stellar wind. Eventually, the pulsar turns off and reverts to its original phase of consumption, but astronomers aren't sure what fuels this continuous cycle.

The latest discovery suggests the companion's magnetic field may play an important role, but further exploration of the phenomenon is necessary.

RELATED Astronomers find oldest known planetary disk

RELATED Why do massive stars lose gas as they evolve? Mira supercomputer may provide answers

RELATED Kepler observatory helps astronomers study 'heartbeat stars'

Latest Headlines