Binary Pulsars & Pulsar Planets

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  • 0:01 Millisecond Pulsars
  • 1:20 Gravitational Radiation
  • 3:38 Pulsar Planets
  • 4:38 The Pulsar Wind
  • 5:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson will describe important concepts related to pulsars, namely binary pulsars, such as pulsar planets, millisecond pulsars, and gravitational waves.

Millisecond Pulsars

If you place two of your fingers right across the area of your neck where the jugular vein is located, you'll be able to detect a pulse. It's a relatively regular throbbing of your arteries caused by the contraction of the heart as it pumps blood out into the body. This regular pulsating motion, and the word 'pulse' itself, reminds me of pulsars, spinning neutron stars that give off extremely regular bursts of electromagnetic radiation.

Like your heart can have a fast pulse or a slow one, depending on if you've been running around a lot or not, pulsars can also have different rates at which they spin. For instance, some pulsars called millisecond pulsars are pulsars that have a period of rotation of as little as one millisecond.

But instead of pumping out blood, these stars pump out electromagnetic radiation, such as radio waves, at regular intervals that we can detect. And instead of using our hands to feel the pulse, astronomers can use instruments to detect these bursts of electromagnetic radiation. What observations of these pulsars have revealed and why they're important in studying Einstein's ideas will be covered in just a bit.

Gravitational Radiation

Some pulsars are located in binary systems. That is to say, these are pulsars that have a companion star with which they orbit around a common center of mass. Observations of binary pulsars have been important for studying Einstein's theory of general relativity as well. Here's what I mean:

Einstein's theory of general relativity says that gravity is the curvature of space-time. This means that any quick change in a gravitational field would need to move away as gravitational waves, which are ripples of space-time that travel at the speed of light.

These ripples or waves move energy outward and away from a disturbed gravitational field as gravitational radiation. You can use the terms 'gravitational radiation' or 'gravitational waves' for these energy-carrying ripples interchangeably. Sometimes, the term 'gravity waves' is also used to refer to this, but because this term is used differently in fields like meteorology, it's best to call it a gravitational wave instead.

In any case, let me put the concept of gravitational waves for you in some other words, just in case what I just said didn't make any sense. When a gravitational field of an object changes for some reason, that change, that disturbance, will move outwards through space from the place of disturbance and take a set amount of time to reach another object as it travels at the speed of light.

Let's pretend you're standing by a pond that is completely still. The water represents a gravitational field. You throw a rock into the pond. You have disturbed and changed the gravitational field by doing so. The changes from this disturbance will move across the pond as ripples or waves of energy and take a set amount of time to reach the shore. That's basically what gravitational waves boil down to as well, except it refers to the fabric of space-time rather than water.

Gravitational waves have not been detected for real, but observations of binary pulsars have given some credence to their existence by implication.

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