China’s huge tele­scope dis­cov­ers new pul­sars

Achieve­ment is hailed as ush­er­ing in a ‘new era’ of na­tion’s space ex­plo­ration

China Daily European Weekly - - China News - By ZHANG ZHIHAO zhangzhi­hao@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Chi­nese re­searchers have dis­cov­ered six pul­sars, the su­per­heavy rem­nants of mas­sive stars, us­ing the coun­try’s Five-hun­dred-me­ter Aper­ture Spher­i­cal Ra­dio Tele­scope, known as FAST. It is the first time Chi­nese sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered pul­sars us­ing the world’s largest sin­gle-dish ra­dio tele­scope, thus open­ing a “new era of Chi­nese orig­i­nal space dis­cov­ery”, Yan Yun, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional As­tro­nom­i­cal Ob­ser­va­to­ries of China, said on Oct 10.

The first two pul­sars, named J1859-01 and J1931-01, were dis­cov­ered in Au­gust and were con­firmed in Septem­ber by the 64-me­ter ra­dio tele­scope at Parkes Ob­ser­va­tory in Aus­tralia.

J1859-01 is 16,000 light-years from Earth and ro­tates once ev­ery 1.83 sec­onds, while J1931-01 is 4,100 light-years away and ro­tates once ev­ery 0.59 sec­onds, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists.

Since its com­ple­tion in Septem­ber 2016, FAST has dis­cov­ered two dozen highly pos­si­ble can­di­dates for pul­sars, says Li Di, the tele­scope’s deputy chief en­gi­neer.

Last week, FAST also con­firmed four new pul­sars, but their de­tails are still be­ing an­a­lyzed.

“Pul­sars are su­per­dense cores of mas­sive stars that went su­per­nova and died, so they have in­cred­i­ble mass, ex­tremely strong mag­netic fields and they spin like a clock and shoot out strong beams of elec­tro­mag­netic ra­di­a­tion,” Li says.

“The con­di­tions on a pul­sar are far more ex­treme than any lab sim­u­la­tion on Earth. Ex­am­in­ing them and see­ing how they in­ter­act with other stars can help us tackle ma­jor sci­en­tific is­sues, such as the ori­gin and evo­lu­tion of the uni­verse, find­ing grav­i­ta­tional waves and nav­i­gat­ing space­craft.”

Li says FAST is set to be fully op­er­a­tional by the end of 2019. In the mean­time, sci­en­tists there will con­tinue to test FAST and co­op­er­ate with for­eign sci­en­tists on space ex­plo­ration.

Lo­cated in a nat­u­ral de­pres­sion in Guizhou prov­ince, FAST con­sists of 4,600 tri­an­gu­lar pan­els that form a re­ceiv­ing dish about the size of 30 soc­cer fields.

Apart from its mas­sive size, it also has un­matched ac­cu­racy and sen­si­tiv­ity, al­low­ing sci­en­tists to find pre­vi­ously hid­den stars, Li says. “When we first re­ceived the pul­sar sig­nals, you could hear their fre­quency sig­nals beep like the beat­ing of a baby’s heart,” he says.

More­over, FAST is ca­pa­ble of sur­vey­ing the night sky for mul­ti­ple sci­en­tific data at once, rang­ing from galaxy struc­ture to star ex­plo­sions, while other tele­scopes can only man­age one task at a time, he adds.

Ge­orge Hobbs, a re­search sci­en­tist from the Com­mon­wealth Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search Or­ga­ni­za­tion in Aus­tralia, says, “The world’s most ex­cit­ing ra­dio astron­omy projects are hap­pen­ing in China with FAST, and it is a great honor for the Aus­tralian sci­ence com­mu­nity to be part of the process.”

Hobbs was also the lead­ing sci­en­tist for the Parkes Pul­sar Tim­ing Ar­ray project, the tele­scope that con­firmed China’s pul­sar find­ings. Since the dis­cov­ery of pul­sars in 1967, sci­en­tists have found more than 2,700 of them, more than half of which were found by Parkes Ob­ser­va­tory, Hobbs says.

“Aus­tralia is the world leader in find­ing pul­sars, but China will catch up re­ally fast with FAST’s help,” he says. “If FAST can find a bi­nary sys­tem in which a pul­sar is or­bit­ing a black hole, this will be a dis­cov­ery wor­thy of a No­bel Prize.”

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