Pulsar Tug-Of-War Warps Space-Time Itself, Research Finds

An incredible tug-of-war between the two stars in the binary pulsar system J1906 actually warps space-time itself owing to the powerful effects of each on the other. Owing to its spin, the pulsar emits a sort-of lighthouse-like beam of radio-waves roughly every 144 milliseconds.

New research from the University of British Columbia has now resulted in the measurement of both of these stars, giving a much deeper understanding of the processes at work.

“By precisely tracking the motion of the pulsar, we were able to measure the gravitational interaction between the two highly compact stars with extreme precision,” states UBC astronomer/physics-professor Ingrid Stairs.

“These two stars each weigh more than the Sun, but are still over 100 times closer together than Earth is to the Sun. The resulting extreme gravity causes many remarkable effects.”

As per the mental-model known as general relativity, neutron-stars oscillate somewhat like a spinning top as they make their way through the “gravitational well” of their companion stars. And so, every orbit sees the pulsar make its way a space-time that is curved — resulting in notable impacts on the spin-axis of the star.

“Through the effects of the immense mutual gravitational pull, the spin axis of the pulsar has now wobbled so much that the beams no longer hit Earth,” astrophysicist Joeri van Leeuwen states. Leeuwen, who works at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and the University of Amsterdam,was the lead researcher on the new work.

“The pulsar is now all but invisible to even the largest telescopes on Earth. This is the first time such a young pulsar has disappeared through precession. Fortunately this cosmic spinning top is expected to wobble back into view, but it might take as long as 160 years.”

This new research is notable as only a handful of double neutron-stars have had their mass measured, to date. And, also, J1906 is apparently the youngest to so have. J1906 is around ~25,000 light years from the Earth.

The new findings were recently published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Image Credit: Joeri van Leeuwen

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