Lookin’ fer Pulsars!
Pulsars are big, nasty, radio-noisy beasts in the cosmic zoo. They are what’s left over after a massive star (say one that is at least eight times more massive than the Sun) explodes as a supernova. Some of the star’s body (what hasn’t been blasted out to space) falls back in on itself in a seething mass of crushed neutrons. They’re superdense and they spin. As they whip around many times per second, they send out beams of radio waves that sweep across our field of view like the light from a lighthouse. We catch their beams as pulses of radio waves; hence the name “pulsar.”
A group of astronomers who study these strange stellar animals has put together a project for high school students and their teachers to participate in searching out pulsars in our galaxy. The students and educators will join astronomers on the cutting edge of science under a program to be operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and West Virginia University (WVU), and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program, called the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, will engage West Virginia students and teachers in a massive search for new pulsars using data from the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT).The GBT has discovered more than 60 pulsars over the past five years, including the fastest-rotating pulsar ever found, a speedster spinning 716 times per second.
Student teams will receive parcels of data from the GBT and analyze the data to discover pulsars. To do this, they’ll learn to use analysis software and recognize radio interference from Earth-based technologies that can contaminate the data. Each portion of the data will be analyzed by multiple teams. Of the 1,500 hours of GBT observing data in the project, all taken during the summer of 2007, some 300 hours is reserved for analysis by the student teams. This reserved data set is expected to include tens of new pulsars and about 100 known pulsars. It’s highly possible that each student in the project could discover one of these cosmic beasts for themselves. Think of how THAT will look on a college application form!