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What Did You Say?: Pulsars & Cosmic Murmurs

By Derek Yang, edited by Symtha Koganti

Euless, TX


In December of 2023, Australian astronomers, using the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), made an exciting new discovery: a new pulsar they named PSR J1032−580. PSR J1032−580 is known to be the third-scattered pulsar (which means the light produced is emitted irregularly, which makes its detection especially impressive because of the difficulty associated with detecting such a scattered pulsar, showing the advancements space technology has made recently. 


Discovered in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell, assistant radio astronomer at Cambridge University, pulsars are rotating neutron stars (spinning as fast as 700 rotations per second!) that have strong magnetic fields, emitting beams of electromagnetic radiation as a result, similar to how a lighthouse’s beam is shown each time the vent bat revolvers around the center. Additionally, just as a lighthouse acts as a beacon to reveal land during a rough storm, pulsars act as guides that estimate different aspects of the universe, such as the universe’s age or size. For example, by examining pulsar patterns, astronomers have learned about the universe’s composition and structure. With technology ever-increasing, pulsars may also hold the key to space travel, as they reveal important information about space-time communication and navigation.


Pulsars are also involved, most critically, in the creation and detection of gravitational waves. When two pulsars are in a binary system—that is, two pulsars rotating in the same direction and speed together—they might spiral inwards towards each other from massive gravitational forces. Eventually, they may combine into a merger pulsar, which releases massive gravitational waves. These gravitational waves contribute to a phenomenon known as cosmic murmurs, the background noise in the universe.

Cosmic murmurs were first proposed in 1916 with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, but it would take around two centuries before experts confirmed their existence. In 2015, the LIGO collaboration found evidence that the murmur existed after discovering a binary pulsar merger. 


These murmurs have the potential to completely change our understanding of the universe. These subtle signals in the universe result from events that might not emit a lot of electromagnetic radiation, so by being able to detect such elusive events, we are able to find out much more about the universe that evaded us for so long. For example, cool (but terrifying!) cases such as black hole mergers and neutron star collisions have been found by examining murmurs. 


Another interesting application of cosmic murmurs is our deepened understanding of space science. Just as Albert Einstein’s famous Theory of Relativity was deemed and proven true by the discovery of murmurs, other theories like a modified gravitational theory can be made, allowing for scientists to gain a more accurate understanding of phenomena even here on Earth. 


Not only do these applications have implications in improving our understanding of the early universe, but they also could help the development of new technologies in the fields of cosmology, astrophysics, astrobiology, and fundamental physics, such as NASA's NICER/SEXTANT project, which aims to develop pulsar technology as a means for spacecraft navigation, providing an alternative to GPS in deep space.



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