NASA’S FERMI Telescope Probes Dozens of Pulsars
A pulsar is the rapidly spinning and highly magnetized core left behind when a massive star explodes. Most of the 1,800 cataloged pulsars were found through their periodic radio emissions. Astronomers believe these pulses are caused by narrow, lighthouse-like radio beams emanating from the pulsar’s magnetic poles.
“Fermi has truly unprecedented power for discovering and studying gamma-ray pulsars,” said
The Vela pulsar, which spins 11 times a second, is the brightest persistent source of gamma rays in the sky. Yet gamma rays — the most energetic form of light — are few and far between. Even Fermi’s Large Area Telescope sees only about one gamma-ray photon from Vela every two minutes.
“That’s about one photon for every thousand Vela rotations,” said
Radio telescopes on Earth can detect a pulsar easily only if one of the narrow radio beams happens to swing our way. If not, the pulsar can remain hidden.
A pulsar’s radio beams represent only a few parts per million of its total power, whereas its gamma rays account for 10 percent or more. Somehow, pulsars are able to accelerate particles to speeds near that of light. These particles emit a broad beam of gamma rays as they arc along curved magnetic field lines.
The new pulsars were discovered as part of a comprehensive search for periodic gamma-ray fluctuations using five months of Fermi Large Area Telescope data and new computational techniques.
“Before launch, some predicted Fermi might uncover a handful of new pulsars during its mission,” Ziegler added. “To discover 16 in its first five months of operation is really beyond our wildest dreams.”
Like spinning tops, pulsars slow down as they lose energy. Eventually, they spin too slowly to power their characteristic emissions and become undetectable.
But pair a slowed dormant pulsar with a normal star, and a stream of stellar matter from the companion can spill onto the pulsar and increase its spin. At rotation periods between 100 and 1,000 times a second, ancient pulsars can resume the activity of their youth. In the second study, Fermi scientists examined gamma rays from eight of these “born-again” pulsars, all of which were previously discovered at radio wavelengths.
“Before Fermi launched, it wasn’t clear that pulsars with millisecond periods could emit gamma rays at all,” said Lucas Guillemot at the Center for Nuclear Studies in Gradignan, near
NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, along with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in
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