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Caption for Animation 1: ACCRETION SPINS PULSAR TO MILLISECOND RANGE

If a pulsar -- a dense star with strong gravitational attraction -- is in a binary system, then it can pull in, or accrete, material from its companion star. This influx of material can eventually spin up the pulsar to the millisecond range, rotating hundreds of revolutions per second.

Caption for Animation 2: ACCRETION SPINS PULSAR TO MILLISECOND RANGE - A VIEW FROM ABOVE

This animation, as viewed from above, shows a pulsarís spin rate increasing due to the influx of material from its companion star.

Caption for Animation 3: NUCLEAR EXPLOSIONS ON PULSAR SURFACE HELP DETERMINE SPIN RATE

Material accumulating on the pulsar surface can sometimes ignite, causing thermonuclear flashes that emit bursts of X-ray light. These thermonuclear flames spread across the surface of the pulsar in a few seconds. The team established that ďburst oscillationsĒ, a kind of flickering, during these X-ray bursts provide a direct measure of the pulsar's spin rate. This animation is a slow-motion depiction of a thermonuclear flash or X-ray burst spreading across a rotating pulsar. The pulsar would actually be rotating hundreds of revolutions per second.

Caption for Animation 4: EMITTED GRAVITATIONAL RADIATION HALTS PULSARíS SPIN UP

As the pulsar picks up speed through accretion, it becomes distorted from a perfect sphere due to subtle changes in the crust, depicted here by an equatorial bulge. Such slight distortion is enough to produce gravitational waves. Material flowing onto the pulsar surface from its companion star tends to quicken the spin, but loss of energy released as gravitational radiation tends to slow the spin due to the principle of conservation of energy. This competition may reach an equilibrium, setting a natural speed limit for millisecond pulsars beyond which they cannot be spun up.

Caption for Animation 5: SUPERNOVA ANIMATION: BIRTH OF A PULSAR

A supernova is associated with the death of a star about eight times as massive as the Sun or more. When such stars deplete their nuclear fuel, they no longer have the energy (in the form of radiation pressure outward) to support their mass. Their cores implode, forming either a neutron star (pulsar) or if there is enough mass, a black hole. The surface layers of the star blast outward, forming the colorful patterns typical of supernova remnants.

Credit for animations: Dana Berry

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July 2, 2003 - (date of web publication)

EINSTEIN'S GRAVITATIONAL WAVES MAY SET SPEED LIMIT FOR PULSAR SPIN

 

still from animation ACCRETION SPINS PULSAR TO MILLISECOND RANGE

Animation 1

Gravitational radiation, ripples in the fabric of space predicted by Albert Einstein, may serve as a cosmic traffic enforcer, protecting reckless pulsars from spinning too fast and blowing apart, according to a report published in the July 3 issue of Nature.

Pulsars, the fastest spinning stars in the Universe, are the core remains of exploded stars, containing the mass of our Sun compressed into a sphere about 10 miles across. Some pulsars gain speed by pulling in gas from a neighboring star, reaching spin rates of nearly one revolution per millisecond, or almost 20 percent light speed. These "millisecond" pulsars would fly apart if they gained much more speed.

Using NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, scientists have found a limit to how fast a pulsar spins and speculate that the cause is gravitational radiation: The faster a pulsar spins, the more gravitational radiation it might release, as its exquisite spherical shape becomes slightly deformed. This may restrain the pulsar's rotation and save it from obliteration.

 

still from animation ACCRETION SPINS PULSAR TO MILLISECOND RANGE - A VIEW FROM ABOVE

Animation 2

"Nature has set a speed limit for pulsar spins," said Prof. Deepto Chakrabarty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lead author on the journal article. "Just like cars speeding on a highway, the fastest-spinning pulsars could technically go twice as fast, but something stops them before they break apart. It may be gravitational radiation that prevents pulsars from destroying themselves."

Chakrabarty's co-authors are Drs. Edward Morgan, Michael Muno, and Duncan Galloway of MIT; Rudy Wijnands, University of St. Andrews, Scotland; Michiel van der Klis, University of Amsterdam; and Craig Markwardt, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Wijnands also leads a second Nature letter complementing this finding.

 

still from animation NUCLEAR EXPLOSIONS ON PULSAR SURFACE HELP DETERMINE SPIN RATE

Animation 3

Gravitational waves, analogous to waves upon an ocean, are ripples in four-dimensional spacetime. These exotic waves, predicted by Einstein's theory of relativity, are produced by massive objects in motion and have not yet been directly detected.

Created in a star explosion, a pulsar is born spinning, perhaps 30 times per second, and slows down over millions of years. Yet if the dense pulsar, with its strong gravitational potential, is in a binary system, it can pull in material from its companion star. This influx can spin up the pulsar to the millisecond range, rotating hundreds of times per second.

 

still from animation EMITTED GRAVITATIONAL RADIATION HALTS PULSARíS SPIN UP

Animation 4

In some pulsars, the accumulating material on the surface occasionally is consumed in a massive thermonuclear explosion, emitting a burst of X-ray light lasting only a few seconds. In this fury lies a brief opportunity to measure the spin of otherwise faint pulsars. Scientists report in Nature that a type of flickering found in these X-ray bursts, called "burst oscillations," serves as a direct measure of the pulsar's spin rate. Studying the burst oscillations from 11 pulsars, they found none spinning faster than 619 times per second.

The Rossi Explorer is capable of detecting pulsars spinning as fast as 4,000 times per second. Pulsar break-up is predicted to occur at 1,000 to 3,000 revolutions per second. Yet scientists have found none that fast. >From statistical analysis of 11 pulsars, they concluded that the maximum speed seen in nature must be below 760 revolutions per second.

 

still from animation SUPERNOVA ANIMATION: BIRTH OF A PULSAR

Animation 5

 

This observation supports the theory of a feedback mechanism involving gravitational radiation limiting pulsar speeds, proposed by Prof. Lars Bildsten of the University of California, Santa Barbara. As the pulsar picks up speed through accretion, any slight distortion in the star's dense, half-mile-thick crust of crystalline metal will allow the pulsar to radiate gravitational waves. (Envision a spinning, oblong rugby ball in water, which would cause more ripples than a spinning, spherical basketball.) An equilibrium rotation rate is eventually reached where the angular momentum shed by emitting gravitational radiation matches the angular momentum being added to the pulsar by its companion star.

Bildsten said that accreting millisecond pulsars could eventually be studied in greater detail in an entirely new way, through the direct detection of their gravitational radiation. LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory now in operation in Hanford, Washington, and in Livingston, Louisiana, will eventually be tunable to the frequency at which millisecond pulsars are expected to emit gravitational waves.

"The waves are subtle, altering spacetime and the distance between objects as far apart as the Earth and the Moon by much less than the width of an atom," said Prof. Barry Barish of the California Institute of Technology, the LIGO director. "As such, gravitational radiation has not been directly detected yet. We hope to change that soon."

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