|Searching for Pulsars with Home PCs
By Lauren Gold
In the search for yet-undiscovered pulsars or ultra-fast spinning neutron stars, a grand-scale sky survey at the Cornell-managed Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico is now taking advantage of the combined processing power of personal computers around the world.
The PALFA Survey, a sky survey using the Arecibo L-band Feed Array (ALFA) -- a system of detectors with seven feeds that enables researchers to image large swaths of sky -- has joined forces with Einstein@Home, an ongoing effort based at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). Einstein@Home involves more than 200,000 people worldwide who donate time on their computers to search for gravitational waves from unknown pulsars.
"Discovery of a pulsar orbiting a neutron star or black hole, with a sub-hour orbital period, would provide tremendous opportunities to test general relativity and to estimate how often such binaries merge," said Jim Cordes, professor of astronomy at Cornell and chair of the Arecibo PALFA Consortium.
Einstein@Home participants will automatically receive work for both the radio and gravitational-wave searches.
"We hope to discover at least a few new radio pulsars per year," said Bruce Allen, director of AEI. "We expect that most of the project's participants will be eager to do both types of searches."
"Combining the sensitivity of the world's largest radio telescope with the distributed computing capabilities of Einstein@Home creates a powerful partnership for discovery," added Dana Lehr, program manager for the Division of Astronomical Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Cornell's National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center manages Arecibo for the NSF.
Gravitational waves were first predicted by Einstein in 1917 as a consequence of his general theory of relativity but have never been directly detected.
Radio pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars that emit a lighthouse-like beam of radio waves that sweeps past the Earth as frequently as 600 times per second. Radio pulsars in short-period binary systems are especially interesting because the effects of general relativity can be very strong. The discovery of new pulsars in short-period binaries would also improve estimates of the rates at which binary star systems form and disappear in our galaxy and also provide new targets to search for gravitational waves.
The large data sets from the survey are archived and processed initially at Cornell and other PALFA institutions. For the Einstein@Home project, data are sent to AEI via high-speed network, preprocessed and then distributed to volunteers around the world. The results are returned to AEI, Cornell and UWM for further investigation.
Source: Cornell University
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