Volunteers discover rare neutron star

Three ‘citizen scientists’ putting their home computers to work when they would otherwise have been idle have discovered a rare rotating pulsar.

Chris and Helen Colvin, of Ames, Iowa and Daniel Gebhardt of Germany’s Universität Mainz are members of the Einstein@Home project, which uses donated time from the computers of 250,000 volunteers from 192 different countries.

The existence of the new radio pulsar showed up in data gathered by the Arecibo Observatory. It’s the first deep-space discovery by Einstein@Home – indeed, the first genuine astronomical discovery by a public volunteer distributed computing project, says the team.

“This is a thrilling moment for Einstein@Home and our volunteers. It proves that public participation can discover new things in our universe,” said Bruce Allen, leader of the Einstein@Home project.

“I hope it inspires more people to join us to help find other secrets hidden in the data.”

The new pulsar, called PSR J2007+2722, is a neutron star that rotates 41 times per second. It’s in the Milky Way, approximately 17,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Vulpecula.

Unlike most pulsars, PSR J2007+2722 has no orbiting companion star. Astronomers suspect it lost its companion, although it may be a young pulsar born with a lower-than-usual magnetic field.

Einstein@Home has been searching for gravitational waves in data from the US-based Large Interferometer Gravitational Observatory since 2005.

In 2009, it also began searching for signals from radio pulsars in astronomical observations from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope.

“No matter what else we find out about it, this pulsar is bound to be extremely interesting for understanding the basic physics of neutron stars and how they form,” said James M Cordes, Cornell professor of astronomy and chair of the Pulsar ALFA Consortium.

“Its discovery has required a complex system that includes the Arecibo Telescope and computing resources at the Albert Einstein Institute, at the Cornell Center for Advanced Computing, and at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to be able to send data out worldwide to Einstein@Home volunteers.”