Power behind Mysterious Gamma-Ray Source Revealed Thanks To Thousands of Volunteers

For years gamma-ray source PSR J2039−5617 has been a cosmic mystery. Astronomers had an ink on what might be behind it but were struggling to find the evidence needed to confirm it. The civic science Einstein @ home program now uses the computing power of 500,000 volunteers to determine if a fast rotating neutron star is responsible.

Einstein @ Home app uses your computer when you are not. With half a million users, computing power can be used to go through huge catalogs of data to detect unreliable and unconscious signals, which can otherwise take a long time. In the case of PSR J2039−5617, long-awaited evidence of the incredible cosmic object of this method has provided.

As published in the monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the gamma-ray source is a binary system consisting of a pulsating neutron star known as a pulsar and a small companion. The team discovered that the pulsar rotates on its axis 377 times per second.

Power behind Mysterious Gamma-Ray Source Revealed Thanks To Thousands of Volunteers

The project’s Einstein @ home side was able to characterize the Pulsar behavior by analyzing 11 years of data using data from NASA’s Farm Space Telescope. It took 500 years to find the rotation time on a single computer. With the help of the application, they were able to find it in just two months.

“It has been suspected for years that at the center of the source we now know as PSR J 2020-55617, there is a pulsar at the core, there is a pulsar,” said co-author Lars Lars, a graduate researcher at the Max Planck Institute. Gravitational physics, said in a statement. “But it was only by lifting the screen and the computing power donated to Einstein@ Home by thousands of volunteers that it was possible to discover gamma-ray pulses.”

The real understanding of the system also comes from new observations of optical wavelengths. The pulsar is slowly evaporating its peers, something that speculated about how the companion stars in its 5.5-hour orbit around the pulsar look different.

“For J2039-5617, there are two main processes of work,” said Dr. Krishna Kumar, lead author of the Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics. Colin Clark explained. “The pulsar heats up one side of the lightweight companion, which looks brighter and bluer. Additionally, the partner is also distorted by the gravitational pull of the pulsar, which changes the apparent size of the stars above orbit.”

The striking accuracy of the data from Einstein @ Home also proves that some truly unique dynamics are happening in the system.

“We’ve found that the orbit of a partner has changed slightly and incredibly over 11 years. It only changes up to about 10 milliseconds, but since we know the arrival time of each gamma photon from the pulsar to microsecond accuracy, this is a little too much!” Nieder said.  More cosmic mysteries like this are waiting to discover in the information. If you want to get involved, you can download the Einstein @ Home app and be a part of some amazing civic science yourself.