Astronomers finding "millisecond pulsars" at astonishing rate

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Washington, January 7 (ANI): An international team of astronomers is discovering exotic stars known as "millisecond pulsars" at an astonishing rate - much faster than ever before.

In the last thirty years, only sixty millisecond pulsars have been identified in the disk of our Galaxy.

But, by using large radio telescopes to target sources of high-energy gamma-rays recently found with NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, astronomers have found seventeen new millisecond pulsars have been found in just the last three months.

This sudden jump in the known population of these rare stars offers the opportunity to better understand their formation and evolution, and increases the chances of using an ensemble of millisecond pulsars as the lever arms of an immense gravitational wave detector.

Pulsars are the stellar remnants of massive stars that have ended their lives in a supernova.

They are rapidly rotating, super-dense, highly magnetized neutron stars that emit beams of radiation from their magnetic poles.

As the star turns, it is sometimes possible to observe these beams sweeping past the line of sight, creating a pulsating effect similar to that of a lighthouse.

Millisecond pulsars, as their name implies, are pulsars that spin with rotational periods of only a few milliseconds - as fast as a kitchen blender.

These are the fastest-spinning stars known and are formed when a neutron star is "spun-up" by the transfer of angular momentum from a companion star.

Their pulsations are detectable with large, ground-based radio telescopes, and in some cases they also emit light at the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum: high-energy gamma-rays, detectable only from space.

"With Fermi leading the way, we now know where to concentrate our search efforts for millisecond pulsars," said Jason Hessels, an ASTRON Staff Astronomer who recently discovered four of the new batch of millisecond pulsars using ASTRON's "DROP" computer cluster to perform the required heavy calculations.

"It's like having a treasure map to guide us," added Hessels.

This sudden sharp increase in the number of known millisecond pulsars is exciting news for astronomers who want to use them as a means to directly detect gravitational waves.

With a sizable array of known millisecond pulsars spread over the sky, astronomers will attempt to measure correlated timing changes among these clocks in order to make the first ever direct detection of the gravitational wave background of the Universe. (ANI)

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