Jan 12, 2015 09:49 PM EST
Astronomers are currently observing a massive stella tug-of-war taking place between a rotating neutron star - known as a pulsar - and another star, which is so intense that it is bending space and making the pulsar wobble--causing it to disappear from view.
Scientists at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy have been watching the pulsar J1906 for the last five years. But when they discovered that the pulsar had a companion star it was interacting with, and that the two bodies orbited each other every four hours, they decided to start tracking the near record-breaking second fastest orbit ever. Hoping to one day be able to detect space-time ripples known as "gravitational wave", the researchers observed the neutron star binary, which according to Einstein's Theory of General Relativity should be capable of creating such an occurrence.
In a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, astronomers led by researcher Joeri van Leeuwen documented their findings and presented them at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
"They pack more mass than our Sun has in a sphere that's only 10 miles across," Leeuwien told reporters. Dr. van Leeuwen continued to explain what happens when pulsars occur as binaries. He said that neutron stars "come hard up against Einstein's theory of general relativity," and generate space-time ripples called gravitational waves in the process. Though undetectable now, astronomers hope that one day they will be able to find solid evidence of the phenomenon.
The lead author says that Pulsar J1906 popped up unexpectedly during a routine survey of the sky. "It was strange, because that part of the sky's been surveyed lots of times - and then something really bright and new appears."
Over the course of five years, Leeuwen's team observed over one billion rotations of the pulsar, using the world's five largest radio telescopes.
Co-author of the study, Professor Ingrid Stairs of the University of British Columbia, Canada, spoke of how the pulsar was observed saying that "by precisely tracking the motion of the pulsar, we were able to measure the gravitational interaction between the two highly compact stars with extreme accuracy."
She said that both the pulsar and its binary are approximately 1.3 times heavier than our Sun, but they are only separated by one solar diameter. "The resulting extreme gravity causes many remarkable effects."
One of these gravitational effects has now caused the pulsar to shine its light somewhere else, at least for now. According to Dr. van Leeuwen's calculations, it should swing back to shine toward Earth again around the year 2170.
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