Little green men? Pulsars presented a mystery 50 years ago

Fifty years ago this month, a small group of astronomers made a revolutionary cosmic discovery — explaining a phenomenon that they initially guessed might come from an intelligent foreigner civilization.

In November 1967, Jocelyn Bell( now Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell ), a graduate student at Cambridge University in England, made what turned out to be the first detecting of a pulsar — an incredibly dense ball of material formed when a massive superstar runs out of gasoline and collapses in on itself. In the time since the discovery of pulsars, the objects have provided insight about the life cycle of superstars and extreme countries of matter, and provided evidence that supports Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity. There are currently endeavours underway to use pulsars to detect gravitational waves, or ripplings in the fabric of the universe, and another to use pulsars as part of a space-based navigation system.

Pulsars spin rapidly, while simultaneously radiating resisting rays of radio wave out into space. The setup is similar to a lighthouse that spins around one up-and-down axis and radiates two ray of sunlight from a second axis. To ships on the water, the steady beam looks like a light pulsing on and off. The same is true for pulsars; if one of the rays happens to sweep across the Earth, it appears to astronomers as though the object is blinking or pulsing.[ What Are Pulsars ?]

Bell Burnell was analyzing objects employing a radio telescope she helped build at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, outside Cambridge, under the supervision of her advisor, Antony Hewish, who designed the instrument. The telescope was intended to help examine the radio cosmos employing a technique called interplanetary scintillation. Hewish intended to use this method on objects called quasars, or incredibly bright centers of massive galaxies, illuminated by material swirling around monster black hole. Quasars vary in brightness, and Hewish guessed the interplanetary scintillation technique was appropriate for identifying those changes.

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