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Vancouver astronomer measures space-time warp

By Stefania Seccia

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the cluster in detail, but it is the chaotic motions of its stars that make it particularly interesting to astronomers.
(ESA/Hubble & NASA)

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the cluster in detail, but it is the chaotic motions of its stars that make it particularly interesting to astronomers. (ESA/Hubble & NASA)

There aren’t that many of these double neutron star systems out there.

 

— Ingrid Stairs, University of B.C. astronomer

While only a handful of double neutron stars have ever been measured, one local astronomer was part of an international team able to add to that short list using a vanishing star to measure a space-time warp.

By tracking the pulsar’s motion, they were able to measure the gravitational interaction between the two stars with total accuracy, according to team member Ingrid Stairs, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of B.C.

“We discovered this pulsar about 10 years ago in a major survey that my group and I are a part of,” she said. “We’ve been working on this for quite a long time now.”

The extreme gravity between the stars can cause many interesting effects, Stairs said. Neutron stars wobble as they move through the gravitational well of a massive, nearby companion star.

“It’s helpful in terms of statistics of neutron star masses and it’s also a useful thing in terms of the wobble of the spin axis,” she said. “Because the two stars are close together, the space time is very, very warped and that causes the spin axis of the pulse stars to shift its direction over time.”

The pulsar tracked by the scientists is now almost out of view and it may take another 160 years before it’s able to be seen again, according to Stairs.

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