What is a Pulsar ?


Most neutron stars are observed as pulsars. Pulsars are rotating neutron stars observed to have pulses of radiation at very regular intervals that typically range from milliseconds to seconds. Pulsars have very strong magnetic fields which funnel jets of particles out along the two magnetic poles. These accelerated particles produce very powerful beams of light. Often, the magnetic field is not aligned with the spin axis, so those beams of particles and light are swept around as the star rotates. When the beam crosses our line-of-sight, we see a pulse – in other words, we see pulsars turn on and off as the beam sweeps over Earth.

One way to think of a pulsar is like a lighthouse. At night, a lighthouse emits a beam of light that sweeps across the sky. Even though the light is constantly shining, you only see the beam when it is pointing directly in your direction. The video below is an animation of a neutron star showing the magnetic field rotating with the star. Partway through, the point-of-view changes so that we can see the beams of light sweeping across our line of sight – this is how a pulsar pulses

This animation takes us into a spinning pulsar, with its strong magnetic field rotating along with it. Clouds of charged particles move along the field lines and their gamma-rays are beamed like a lighthouse beacon by the magnetic fields. As our line of sight moves into the beam, we see the pulsations once every rotation of the neutron star. (Credit: NASA/Goddard/ CI Lab)