Strange Spinning Star Discovered by Volunteers
Chris and Helen Colvin of Iowa donated spare computer time to the Einstein@Home project, which recently discovered a new pulsar.
Credit: Chris Colvin

A network of volunteers donating spare computer time has helped discover a strange pulsing star in deep space.

A German man and a couple from Iowa are credited with the find ? the first deep-space discovery by Einstein@Home, a project in which 250,000 people from 192 different countries allow their personal computers to work on scientific problems in the background.

"The collective computing power of all these computers around the world is actually substantially greater than the largest supercomputers that are built," said Bruce Allen, leader of the Einstein@Home project and director of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Hannover, Germany, during a Thursday press conference. "It's both practical and inspiring."

Strange pulsar in space

The newly discovered star is called a pulsar - a very dense star that spins around, projecting a thin beam of light that sweeps in a circle like a lighthouse. Every time that beam passes over Earth, we see a pulse of light, hence the name pulsar.

"The run-of-the-mill, typical pulsar spins about once per second and is highly magnetized," said James M. Cordes, Cornell University professor of astronomy and chair of research team. "The pulsar that was found was among the more [quickly] spinning ones, but it also has a low magnetic field."

The special pulsar, called PSR J2007+2722, rotates 41 times per second. While most stars that spin so fast are part of binary pairs of two stars, this one sits alone without a companion.

The scientists think that it may have originated as half of a binary, but the second star may have exploded in a supernova that disrupted the pair and sent it off in another direction.

Astronomy by home computer

The original observations used to find the pulsar were gathered at the Arecibo Observatory's radio telescope in Puerto Rico. After some preprocessing, the observations were split up into chunks and distributed to volunteers around the world participating in the Einstein@Home project.

The computers that discovered the pulsar's signal belonged to Helen and Chris Colvin of Ames, Iowa, and Daniel Gebhardt of Musikinformatik, Germany. The Colvins both work as information technology professionals, and Gebhardt is a systems administrator for the music department of Universit?t Mainz.

The three each said they were excited to be part of Einstein@Home's first big discovery.

"The [software] program itself doesn't indicate anything special about the data when it processes it," Helen Colvin said. "We found out from a letter from Dr. Allen. We got the letter and realized something big was happening."

Other similar distributed computing projects include SETI@Home, which uses donated computer time to search for signals from extraterrestrials, as well as the Rosetta@home project, which aims to discover protein structures.

"This is a thrilling moment for Einstein@Home and our volunteers," Allen said. "It proves that public participation can discover new things in our universe. I hope it inspires more people to join us to help find other secrets hidden in the data."

The finding was reported in the August 13 issue of the journal Science.

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