In 1974 the first binary pulsar—two stars, at least one of which is a neutron star, that orbit each other—was discovered by Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor, for which they shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics. Using this binary system, they observed indirect evidence of gravitational waves and also tested the general theory of relativity. Several dozen binary pulsars are now known. In 1995 the orbiting Compton Gamma Ray Observatory detected the first object that bursts and pulses at the same time. This bursting pulsar, another class of pulsars, is currently the strongest source of X rays and gamma rays in the sky. Fewer than a dozen bursting pulsars are known to exist.
The intense magnetic field and plasma that are believed to surround a neutron star provide an effective source of radio waves. The high-energy electrons of the plasma spiral around the magnetic field and emit radio waves and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. This synchrotron radiation is highly directional, like a flashlight beam. If the neutron star is rotating, it will act like a revolving beacon and produce the observed pulses. The pulses recur at precise intervals, but successive pulses differ considerably in strength. Since 1968 more than 700 pulsars have been observed, with pulse rates from 4 seconds to 1.5 milliseconds; the very rapid ones are called millisecond pulsars. The interval between pulses decreases ever so slightly with the passage of time, and it is believed that the slower pulsers are the older stars while the rapid pulsers are the younger. Pulsars in the Crab Nebula and at the site of the Vela supernova can be detected optically as well as at X-ray and gamma-ray frequencies.
Pulsars are highly magnetized rotating neutron stars that emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation in the form of radio waves. Their observed periods range from 1.4 ms to 8.5 s. The radiation can only be observed when the beam of emission is pointing towards the Earth. This is called the lighthouse effect and gives rise to the pulsed nature that gives pulsars their name. Because neutron stars are very dense objects, the rotation period and thus the interval between observed pulses are very regular. For some pulsars, the regularity of pulsation is as precise as an atomic clock. Pulsars are known to have planets orbiting them, as in the case of PSR B1257+12. Werner Becker of the Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik said in 2006, "The theory of how pulsars emit their radiation is still in its infancy, even after nearly forty years of work.
The word pulsar is a contraction of "pulsating star", and first appeared in print in 1968:
"An entirely novel kind of star came to light on Aug. 6 last year and was referred to, by astronomers, as LGM (Little Green Men). Now it is thought to be a novel type between a white dwarf and a neutron [sic]. The name Pulsar is likely to be given to it. Dr. A. Hewish told me yesterday: "… I am sure that today every radio telescope is looking at the Pulsars."
The suggestion that pulsars were rotating neutron stars was put forth independently by Thomas Gold and Franco Pacini in 1968, and was soon proven beyond doubt by the discovery of a pulsar with a very short (33-millisecond) pulse period in the Crab nebula.
In 1974, Antony Hewish became the first astronomer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Considerable controversy is associated with the fact that Professor Hewish was awarded the prize while Bell, who made the initial discovery while she was his Ph.D student, was not.
In 1982, a pulsar with a rotation period of just 1.6 milliseconds was discovered, by Shri Kulkarni and Don Backer. Observations soon revealed that its magnetic field was much weaker than ordinary pulsars, while further discoveries cemented the idea that a new class of object, the "millisecond pulsars" (MSPs) had been found. MSPs are believed to be the end product of X-ray binaries. Owing to their extraordinarily rapid and stable rotation, MSPs can be used by astronomers as clocks rivalling the stability of the best atomic clocks on Earth. Factors affecting the arrival time of pulses at the Earth by more than a few hundred nanoseconds can be easily detected and used to make precise measurements. Physical parameters accessible through pulsar timing include the 3D position of the pulsar, its proper motion, the electron content of the interstellar medium along the propagation path, the orbital parameters of any binary companion, the pulsar rotation period and its evolution with time. (These are computed from the raw timing data by Tempo, a computer program specialized for this task.) After these factors have been taken into account, deviations between the observed arrival times and predictions made using these parameters can be found and attributed to one of three possibilities: intrinsic variations in the spin period of the pulsar, errors in the realization of Terrestrial Time against which arrival times were measured, or the presence of background gravitational waves. Scientists are currently attempting to resolve these possibilities by comparing the deviations seen amongst several different pulsars, forming what is known as a Pulsar Timing Array. With luck, these efforts may lead to a time scale a factor of ten or better than currently available, and the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves.
The first ever extrasolar planets were found orbiting a MSP, by Aleksander Wolszczan. This discovery presented important evidence concerning the widespread existence of planets outside the solar system, although it is very unlikely that any life form could survive in the environment of intense radiation near a pulsar.
Although all three classes of objects are neutron stars, their observable behaviour and the underlying physics are quite different. There are, however, connections. For example, X-ray pulsars are probably old rotation-powered pulsars that have already lost most of their energy, and have only become visible again after their binary companions expanded and began transferring matter on to the neutron star. The process of accretion can in turn transfer enough angular momentum to the neutron star to "recycle" it as a rotation-powered millisecond pulsar.
Initially pulsars were named with letters of the discovering observatory followed by their right ascension (e.g. CP 1919). As more pulsars were discovered, the letter code became unwieldy and so the convention was then superseded by the letters PSR (Pulsating Source of Radio) followed by the pulsar's right ascension and degrees of declination (e.g. PSR 0531+21) and sometimes declination to a tenth of a degree (e.g. PSR 1913+167). Pulsars that are very close together sometimes have letters appended (e.g. PSR 0021-72C and PSR 0021-72D).
The modern convention is to prefix the older numbers with a B (e.g. PSR B1919+21) with the B meaning the coordinates are for the 1950.0 epoch. All new pulsars have a J indicating 2000.0 coordinates and also have declination including minutes (e.g. PSR J1921+2153). Pulsars that were discovered before 1993 tend to retain their B names rather than use their J names (e.g. PSR J1921+2153 is more commonly known as PSR B1919+21). Recently discovered pulsars only have a J name (e.g. PSR J0437-4715). All pulsars have a J name that provides more precise coordinates of its location in the sky.
In June 2006, astronomer John Middleditch and his team at LANL announced the first prediction of glitches with observational data from the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer. They used observations of the pulsar PSR J0537-6910.
The study of pulsars has resulted in many applications in physics and astronomy. Striking examples include the confirmation of the existence of gravitational radiation as predicted by general relativity and the first detection of an extrasolar planetary system.
Due to the dispersive nature of the interstellar plasma, lower-frequency radio waves travel through the medium slower than higher-frequency radio waves. The resulting delay in the arrival of pulses at a range of frequencies is directly measurable as the dispersion measure of the pulsar. The dispersion measure is the total column density of free electrons between the observer and the pulsar,
Additionally, turbulence in the interstellar gas causes density inhomogeneities in the ISM which cause scattering of the radio waves from the pulsar. The resulting scintillation of the radio waves—the same effect as the twinkling of a star in visible light due to density variations in the Earth's atmosphere—can be used to reconstruct information about the small scale variations in the ISM. Due to the high velocity (up to several hundred km/sec) of many pulsars, a single pulsar scans the ISM rapidly, which results in changing scintillation patterns over timescales of a few minutes.