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Updated 2:00 PM EDT, Wed, May 20, 2020

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High School Students Discover Pulsar with Widest Orbit

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(Photo : B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)) This is an artist's impression of pulsar PSR J1930-1852 shown in orbit around a companion neutron star. Discovered by a team of high school students, this pulsar has the widest orbit ever observed around another neutron star.

A team of high school students discovered a pulsar that has the widest orbit around a neutron star that has ever been recorded.

They discovered a never-before-seen pulsar by painstakingly analyzing data from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT). Further observations by astronomers using the GBT revealed that this pulsar has the widest orbit of any around a neutron star and is part of only a handful of double neutron star systems.

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"Pulsars are some of the most extreme objects in the universe," said Joe Swiggum, a graduate student in physics and astronomy at West Virginia University in Morgantown and lead author on a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal explaining this result and its implications.

About 10 percent of known pulsars are in binary systems; the vast majority of these are found orbiting ancient white dwarf companion stars. Only a rare few orbit other neutron stars or main sequence stars like our Sun. Astronomers believe the reason for this paucity of double neutron star systems is the process by which pulsars and all neutron stars form.

The object, dubbed PSR J1930-1852, was discovered in 2012 by Cecilia McGough, a student at Strasburg High School in Virginia, and De'Shang Ray, a student at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Baltimore, Md. They were participating in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory (PSC) workshop.

Astronomers determined that this new pulsar is part of a binary system, based on the differences in its spin frequency (revolutions per second) between the original detection and follow-up observations.

Studies involving Pulsar Search Collaboratory discoveries are ongoing; as the PSC program continues, astronomers expect the 130 terabytes of data produced by the US$17 million GBT will likely reveal dozens of previously unknown pulsars.

The Pulsar Search Collaboratory is a joint project between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and West Virginia University. The goal is to give high school students experience doing real research.

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