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What is a pulsar?

Learn about what a pulsar is and who first detected them.

Pulsars form when a star with 1.4 to four times the mass of the sun collapses. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
Pulsars form when a star with 1.4 to four times the mass of the sun collapses.

A pulsar is a rotating neutron star that gives off sharp regular pulses of radio waves at rates ranging from 0.001 to 4 seconds. Stars burn by fusing hydrogen into helium. When they use up their hydrogen, their interiors begin to contract. During this contraction energy is released and the outer layers of the star are pushed out. These layers are large and cool; the star is now a red giant.

A star with more than twice the mass of the sun will continue to expand, becoming a supergiant. At that point, it may blow up, in an explosion called a supernova. After a supernova, the remaining material of the star's core may be so compressed that the electrons and protons become neutrons. A star 1.4 to four times the mass of the sun can be compressed into a neutron star only about 12 miles (20 kilometers) across. Neutron stars rotate very fast. The neutron star at the center of the Crab Nebula spins 30 times per second.

A pulsar is formed by the collapse of a star with 1.4 to four times the mass of the sun. Some of these neutron stars emit radio signals from their magnetic poles in a direction that reaches Earth. These signals were first detected by Jocelyn Bell (b. 1943) of Cambridge University in 1967.

Because of their regularity some people speculated that they were extraterrestrial beacons constructed by alien civilizations. This theory was eventually ruled out and the rotating neutron star came to be accepted as the explanation for these pulsating radio sources, or pulsars.

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