History of observation
The first pulsar was observed on November 28, 1967, by Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish. They observed pulses separated by 1.33 seconds that originated from the same location in the sky, and kept to sidereal time. In looking for explanations for the pulses, the short period of the pulses eliminated most astrophysical sources of radiation, such as stars, and since the pulses followed sidereal time, it could not be man-made radio frequency interference.
When observations with another telescope confirmed the emission, it eliminated any sort of instrumental effects. At this point, Bell Burnell said of herself and Hewish that "we did not really believe that we had picked up signals from another civilization, but obviously the idea had crossed our minds and we had no proof that it was an entirely natural radio emission. It is an interesting problem—if one thinks one may have detected life elsewhere in the universe, how does one announce the results responsibly?" Even so, they nicknamed the signal LGM-1, for "little green men" (a playful name for intelligent ).
It was not until a second pulsating source was discovered in a different part of the sky that the "LGM hypothesis" was entirely abandoned. Their pulsar was later dubbed CP 1919, and is now known by a number of designators including PSR 1919+21 and PSR J1921+2153. Although CP 1919 emits in radio wavelengths, pulsars have subsequently been found to emit in visible light, X-ray, and gamma ray wavelengths.
The word "pulsar" is a portmanteau of 'pulsating' and 'quasar', 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 [star]. 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 existence of neutron stars was first proposed by Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky in 1934, when they argued that a small, dense star consisting primarily of neutrons would result from a supernova. Based on the idea of magnetic flux conservation from magnetic main sequence stars, Lodewijk Woltjer proposed in 1964 that such neutron stars might contain magnetic fields as large as 10^14 to 10^16 G. In 1967, shortly before the discovery of pulsars, Franco Pacini suggested that a rotating neutron star with a magnetic field would emit radiation, and even noted that such energy could be pumped into a supernova remnant around a neutron star, such as the Crab Nebula. After the discovery of the first pulsar, Thomas Gold independently suggested a rotating neutron star model similar to that of Pacini, and explicitly argued that this model could explain the pulsed radiation observed by Bell Burnell and Hewish. The discovery of the Crab pulsar later in 1968 seemed to provide confirmation of the rotating neutron star model of pulsars. The Crab pulsar has a 33-millisecond pulse period, which was too short to be consistent with other proposed models for pulsar emission. Moreover, the Crab pulsar is so named because it is located at the center of the Crab Nebula, consistent with the 1933 prediction of Baade and Zwicky.
In 1974, Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle became the first astronomers to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noting that Hewish played a "decisive role in the discovery of pulsars". Considerable controversy is associated with the fact that Hewish was awarded the prize while Bell, who made the initial discovery while she was his PhD student, was not. Bell claims no bitterness upon this point, supporting the decision of the Nobel prize committee.
In 1974, Joseph Hooton Taylor, Jr. and Russell Hulse discovered for the first time a pulsar in a binary system, PSR B1913+16. This pulsar orbits another neutron star with an orbital period of just eight hours. Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts that this system should emit strong gravitational radiation, causing the orbit to continually contract as it loses orbital energy. Observations of the pulsar soon confirmed this prediction, providing the first ever evidence of the existence of gravitational waves. As of 2010, observations of this pulsar continue to agree with general relativity. In 1993, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Taylor and Hulse for the discovery of this pulsar.
In 1982, Don Backer led a group which discovered PSR B1937+21, a pulsar with a rotation period of just 1.6 milliseconds (38,500 rpm). 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 rivaling the stability of the best atomic clocks on Earth. Factors affecting the arrival time of pulses at 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 between several different pulsars, forming what is known as a pulsar timing array. The goal of these efforts is to develop a pulsar-based time standard precise enough to make the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves.
In June 2006, the astronomer
John Middleditch and his team at LANL announced the first prediction of pulsar glitches with observational data from the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer. They used observations of the pulsar PSR J0537-6910.
In 1992, Aleksander Wolszczan discovered the first around PSR B1257+12. 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.
In 2016, AR Scorpii was identified as the first pulsar in which the compact object is a white dwarf instead of a neutron star. Because its moment of inertia is much higher than that of a neutron star, the white dwarf in this system rotates once every 1.97 minutes, far slower than neutron-star pulsars. The system displays strong pulsations from ultraviolet to radio wavelengths, powered by the spin-down of the strongly magnetized white dwarf.