Pulsar astronomers win the European Union Descartes Prize for Research

12/02/05

A collaboration of European research teams (The Pulsar Science in Europe - PULSE - collaboration) led by Professor Andrew Lyne of the University of Manchester, have been awarded the European Commission's prestigious 2005 Descartes Prize for Research.

The Descartes Prize is awarded to teams of researchers who have achieved outstanding scientific and technological results through collaborative research. PULSE's award was for their continuing research into the use of pulsars to study some of the most extreme physical conditions in the universe and test its most fundamental laws.

A pulsar is a small, rapidly spinning and highly magnetised neutron star that results from the violent collapse of a massive star in a supernova explosion. The giant star's core, weighing nearly a million times the mass of the Earth, is condensed into an incredibly dense body typically some 20km across. As they rotate, they emit powerful beams of radio waves from above their magnetic poles and which sweep across the Galaxy like a light-house beam. Should the beams cross the Earth, radio telescopes will detect pulses of emission which are, in effect, the ticks of a highly accurate clock. Their period is set by the rotation speed of the pulsar and ranges from a just over a millisecond up to a few seconds.

The PULSE collaboration is between the pulsar groups at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory, the Max Planck Institute for Radioastronomy in Germany, ASTRON in the Netherlands, the INAF Astronomical Observatory of Cagliari in Italy and the University of Thessalonika in Greece.

The success of PULSE was only possible because of the unique position of Europe having the largest number of 100m-class radiotelescopes required to observe the weak pulsars. The collaboration used the telescopes at Jodrell Bank, Effelsberg, Westerbork and Bologna.

PULSE was initiated in 1995 with a grant from the European Union with the aim of creating a team who could undertake large scale research projects that were otherwise too big for the individual groups on their own. The work of the Manchester group, the largest in the collaboration, is largely funded the United Kingdom's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

The group's crowning achievement has been the discovery and follow-up observations, made in collaboration with Australian astronomers, of the first known double pulsar. Studies of the double pulsar have enabled them to make the most accurate confirmation yet of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity - the theory of gravity which supplanted that of Isaac Newton. "Rarely does a single class of object lend itself to high-precision experiments in so many domains of modern and fundamental physics," enthuses Dr Michael Kramer of the University of Manchester.

The importance of the collaboration was emphasised by Professor John Seiradakis of the University of Thessalonika: "The bringing together of groups across Europe has enabled us to benefit from collaborative instrumentation and software effort, the sharing of expertise and training opportunities and the co-ordination of observing programmes."

PULSE has enabled the setting up of a unified data format for the easy exchange of pulsar data and has designed and performed unique experiments to understand pulsars. Ten years on, the team are world leaders and their research achievements cover a wide field, not only in studying the extreme physics of the pulsars themselves, but also in using them as probes of the galaxy through which their signals pass.

Professor Lyne underlines the importance of the collaboration: "Our work increases mankind's knowledge of some of the fundamental laws that govern the universe. These results are not only of interest to today's scientific professionals. They also help to interest young people in astronomy, physics and basic research, forming an important foundation for a society increasingly based on science and technology."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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