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Astronomers observe a 'cannibal' pulsar stealing matter from companion star

July 22, 1998
Webposted at 2:05 PM EDT

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (CNN) - Using X-ray telescopes, astronomers have observed for the first time a so-called "millisecond" pulsar in the process of cannibalizing a companion star.

This finding will lead to a better understanding of the evolution of stars, say researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Pulsars are spinning neutron stars that emit radiowaves and X-rays. They are called "pulsars" because the radio pulses they emit are short, intense, and come at very precise, regular intervals, like a human pulse.

Pulsars emit these radio pulses at a rate of 100 to 1,000 times a second.

Most pulsars start out spinning very fast, then run out of steam slowly over 100 million years or so.
Animation of the formation of the pulsar
Windows Media 28K 56K

However, one fairly rare type of pulsar, called the millisecond pulsar, has baffled astronomers for some time. These millisecond pulsars continue to spin very rapidly even though they are billions of years old.

Researchers have been at a loss to explain what fuels the millisecond pulsars over the long-term, when so many other pulsars "run out of gas" so much sooner.

Wednesday's new findings suggest the millisecond pulars are spinning so fast because they steal, or cannibalize, matter from companion stars. As the material from the companion star slams into the millisecond pulsar, it pushes on it and makes it spin.

The millisecond pulsar is located 12,000 light years away in the constellation Sagittarius.

Two teams of scientists discovered the millisecond pulsar almost simultaneously - - one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the other from the University of Amersterdam.

The results are published in this week's edition of the British journal Nature.

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