pulsar, in astronomy, a neutron star that emits brief, sharp pulses of energy instead of the steady radiation associated with other natural sources. The study of pulsars began when Antony Hewish and his students at Cambridge built a primitive radio telescope to study a scintillation effect on radio sources caused by clouds of electrons in the solar wind. Because this telescope was specially designed to record rapid variations in signals, in 1967 it readily recorded a signal from a totally unexpected source. Jocelyn Bell Burnell noticed a strong scintillation effect opposite the sun, where the effect should have been weak. After an improved recorder was installed, the signals were received again as a series of sharp pulses with intervals of about a second. By the end of 1968 it was clear that the team had discovered a rapidly spinning neutron star, a remnant of a supernova.
In 1974 the first binary pulsar—two stars, at least one of which is a neutron star, that orbit each other—was discovered by Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor, for which they shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics. Using this binary system, they observed indirect evidence of gravitational waves and also tested the general theory of relativity. Several dozen binary pulsars are now known. In 1995 the orbiting Compton Gamma Ray Observatory detected the first object that bursts and pulses at the same time. This bursting pulsar, another class of pulsars, is currently the strongest source of X rays and gamma rays in the sky. Fewer than a dozen bursting pulsars are known to exist.
The intense magnetic field and plasma that are believed to surround a neutron star provide an effective source of radio waves. The high-energy electrons of the plasma spiral around the magnetic field and emit radio waves and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. This synchrotron radiation is highly directional, like a flashlight beam. If the neutron star is rotating, it will act like a revolving beacon and produce the observed pulses. The pulses recur at precise intervals, but successive pulses differ considerably in strength. Since 1968 more than 700 pulsars have been observed, with pulse rates from 4 seconds to 1.5 milliseconds; the very rapid ones are called millisecond pulsars. The interval between pulses decreases ever so slightly with the passage of time, and it is believed that the slower pulsers are the older stars while the rapid pulsers are the younger. Pulsars in the Crab Nebula and at the site of the Vela supernova can be detected optically as well as at X-ray and gamma-ray frequencies.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.