Sometimes there are distinct advantages to being an amateur instead of a professional.
That’s exactly the situation that André van Staden, a South African amateur astronomer found himself in. Using his personal telescope at his home observatory, van Staden was able to make observations that weren’t possible and contributed to new research into a specific class of pulsars called a millisecond pulsar binary system.
“I noted that the binary system MSP J1723-2837 is well suited for observing from South Africa,” van Staden says, “and that a light curve had not yet been determined for this particular system.”
Artist’s impression of a star (left ) deformed by a pulsar (right). The white rays indicate radiation beams. Image Credit: NASA
“I also realized that observations were scarce because professionals do not have the luxury of using professional instruments for continuous observations. On the other hand, non-professionals can make these long-term observations.” van Staden added in a statement.
Using his 30 cm reflecting telescope, van Staden began collecting data on a millisecond pulsar binary system. The system, located 2500 light years away from Earth features a pulsar (a dense neutron star that emits intense beams of radiation) and a companion star located just 2 million kilometers away, a fraction of the distance between Mercury and the Sun.
Then van Staden sent his data to professional astrophysicist John Antoniadis, who encouraged him to collect data. Unconstrained by academic restrictions (telescopes need to be shared) van Stated was able to amass a large amount of data that showed that the companion star had star spots (just like sun spots) indicating the presence of a strong magnetic field on that star.
André van Staden in his home observatory with his 30cm reflector telescope. Credit: André van Staden
The researchers think that this might provide a clue to why pulsars occasionally turn off (stop emitting strong beams of radiation) and then back on again. This could give further insights into how these binary systems develop and change over time. Their work was recently published in a paper in the Astrophysical Journal.
Understanding how millisecond pulsars function and evolve is interesting from a purely scientific perspective, but it’s also very useful. In November 2016, China launched a satellite, the XPNAV-1, which will test the idea that these kinds of pulsars can be used for navigation in space. The idea is that by monitoring the pulses of known pulsars, a spacecraft can figure out where it is in the solar system to an accuracy of about 3 miles. Think of it as a GPS for space travel.
The technology is still being tested, but understanding more about how pulsars work could help it develop further.