While your computer is running idle, it could be finding new pulsars and black holes in deep space—just like the computers of three volunteers running a program called Einstein@Home.
Three volunteers running the distributed computing program Einstein@Home have discovered a new pulsar in the data from the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope. Their computers, one in Iowa (owned by two people) and one in Germany, downloaded and processed the data that found the pulsar, which is in the Milky Way, approximately 17,000 light years from Earth in constellation Vulpecula.
"The way that we found the pulsar using distributed computing with volunteers is a new paradigm that we're going to make better use of in astronomy as time goes on," said astronomer Jim Cordes of Cornell University. "This really has legs."
About 250,000 volunteers run Einstein@Home, on average donating about 250 teraflops per second of computing power - equivalent to a quarter of the capacity of the largest supercomputer in the world, says program developer David Anderson of University of California at Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory, co-author of the Aug. 12 discovery announcement in Science.
Einstein@Home has been searching for gravitational waves in the data from the US LIGO Observatory since 2005, and since March 2009 has dedicated one-third of its power to searching for radio pulsars and black holes in the Arecibo data. As of this week, it will start dedicating half of its processing power to data from Arecibo, the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope, physicist Bruce Allen of the Max Plank Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany and co-author of the study announced a press conference Aug. 12.
The new pulsar, dubbed PSR J2007+2722, is a neutron star rotating 41 times per second. Pulsars are birthed when stars five to 10 times as massive as our sun explode into a supernova and then collapse into stars composed almost entirely of neutrons.
The data from Arecibo was processed on the computer in Iowa June 11, and then also processed on a computer in Germany June 14 for validation. The finding was part of a larger search that returned results on July 10, which was the first time a human being was aware of the discovery.
The person who looked at the results notified Greenbank Observatory in West Virginia, which immediately pointed their telescope at the new pulsar to verify it. Within hours, Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico also pointed their telescope at it.
"This is the first time I've worked closely with radio astronomers making a discovery," said Allen. "It was like watching 5-year-olds tearing Christmas presents. Or like watching someone throw chunks of meat at starving sharks."
Pulsars are named after the pulsing signals they send to Earth. The pulse comes from the spin and the magnetic field of the neutron star being on two different axes, which acts like an electric generator and creates a beamed signal that rotates like a lighthouse. Cordes says theoretical predictions are that only about 20 percent of the pulsars in the galaxy are detectable on Earth because the beam needs to point directly at us to be detected.
Often, pulsars have a companion star or neutron star that was originally born in the same cloud of gas. But this new pulsar doesn't and is likely a disrupted recycled pulsar. This means the pulsar once had a companion star that it sucked matter from as the star swelled up into a red giant, which caused the pulsar to cycle faster (recycle). The red giant star then exploded into a supernova and blasted the pulsar away, leaving it alone in space (disrupted).
The new pulsar is one of around 2000 pulsars that have been discovered using radio telescopes in the past 43 years, said Cordes. He estimates there are 20,000 pulsars in the Milky Way that could be detected.
"I see this as a long-term effort where we're going to find really interesting objects," said Cordes. "We'd like to find a pulsar orbiting a black hole, or a pulsar orbiting another neutron star so that we can test some of Einstein's predictions of the general theory of relativity"
You can become part of the effort by downloading BOINC. The program has been used to create 70 different distributed computing projects (almost every one in existence except Folding@Home), and you can decide what fraction of your spare computing power you want to dedicate to each of the 70 projects.
In case you need more incentive, Cordes announced that a second pulsar has been already been discovered in the last month by Einstein@Home users in the United Kingdom and Russia. He's keeping details to himself for now.
"We have a very large data set," Cordes added at the press conference. "We just need to cull through it, and Einstein@Home lets us use a much finer comb."
Images: 1) Screen shot of Einstein@Home/B. Knispel, Albert Einstein Institute. 2) Copyright Cornell University.