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Why do pulsars produce pulses?

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A pulsar is a small, dense, high-speed spinning star that emits a narrow beam of radio waves as it rotates, like a spinning beacon that can only be detected when it’s facing us. So from Earth, this strange star appears to be emitting a pulse signal.

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Pulsars are a type of neutron star: sometimes, massive stars end their lives in cataclysmic explosions, and neutron stars are the product of such explosions.

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A medium-sized star (such as the sun) is the size of millions of Earths. Whereas a giant or supergiant is 10 to 1,000 times the diameter of the sun, a neutron star is formed after such a huge star collapses to the size of a city. This is the difference between a neutron star, which has the mass of an ordinary star, but is unimaginably small – a tablespoon of neutron star matter weighs 1 billion tons.

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The remnants of a star’s explosion collapse, and as it collapses, its gravity gets stronger and stronger, and atoms are squeezed closer and closer together. Under normal circumstances, atoms maintain a certain distance because electrons in atoms moving around the nucleus cause atoms to repel each other. But in a neutron star, electrons are strongly squeezed out of their original orbits and into the center of the atom. The center of the atom is the nucleus, which consists of protons and neutrons. The electrons entering the nucleus react with the protons to form more neutrons. Eventually, the star is filled with neutrons, and a neutron star is formed.

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Scientists believe that neutron stars existed long before humans discovered them. In November 1967, humans saw the first signs of its existence: an array of radio telescopes in the UK discovered a new source of radio waves in the universe.

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There are many kinds of radio wave sources in the universe. For example, water and ammonia molecules drifting between stars emit radio waves, which can be received by the dishes of radio telescopes.

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Pulsars emit radio waves that are different from other radio waves. Jocelyn Bell, a graduate student, took a closer look at the characteristics of these radio waves when she stumbled across these strange signals, and she was surprised to find that this radio source regularly emits radio waves – at 1.337 second intervals.

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After Bell’s discovery was made public, many people thought she had discovered a radio beacon built by an extraterrestrial civilization, but a few months later, another pulsed radio source was discovered. As a result, scientists no longer believe that what Bell found was the radio waves emitted by man-made objects. Astronomers eventually determined that these radio wave sources were the product of the collapse of stars, and named them pulsars. It turns out that pulsars are a type of neutron star. Since then, hundreds of pulsars have been revealed one after another.

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But why do pulsars pulse? Scientists think it’s because of their high-speed rotation. All stars rotate, and it takes nearly a month for the sun to rotate once. All spinning objects spin faster as they shrink. Think of Figure Skating athletes, as they do their spins, slowly bending their arms toward their chests makes them spin faster and faster. The same is true for collapsed stars. A pulsar the size of a city can spin once per second, and faster.

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Consider how pulses are formed. Pulsars have strong magnetic fields, and free protons and electrons near the north and south poles are swept along the magnetic field lines, and when these particles accelerate, they emit photons of energy – from X-rays to radio waves. So as the pulsar rotates, narrow beams of radiation flash out, like the light from a spinning lighthouse flickering.

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