The case of the disappearing pulsar

18:01 21 May 2012 by Lisa Grossman

Object: pulsar in a double system
Orientation: out of view

The crime scene: 1600 light years away in the constellation Puppis. The victim: radio pulsar J0737-3039B. For five years, Pulsar B had blinked faithfully at a team of astronomers watching from radio telescopes on Earth. The star was a spectacular find: unlike every other pulsar ever observed, this one was in a close binary orbit with another pulsar. Together, the pair provided a precise laboratory to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and a means of detailing how pulsars behave.

But in March 2008, Pulsar B went dark.

“We weren’t able to detect the pulsar at all,” says Maura McLaughlin of West Virginia University in Morgantown. “It’s the first time we’ve ever seen a pulsar disappear.”

This cosmic whodunit is without a culprit, however. No one snuffed out Pulsar B – it just rotated out of view.

J0737-3039A/B, the first double-pulsar system ever, was discovered in 2003 by the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia.

Pulsar A spins once every 23 milliseconds. Pulsar B is slower, completing a rotation once every 2.8 seconds. Pulsar B passes in front of its partner every 2.4 hours, and its strong magnetic field blocks the light from Pulsar A for about 30 seconds…

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