Science

Gravitational Waves Play With Fast-Rotating Stars, Study Suggests

Scientists observed changes in signals from rapidly rotating stars called millisecond pulsars that could indicate the existence of subtle ripples in space-time that vibrate throughout the universe.

Millisecond pulsars are stellar remnants that rotate hundreds of times per second, producing precise radio pulses that can act like a cosmic metronome. Scientists believe that ripples in space-time, called gravitational waves, can affect these signals as they travel through space. When an international team of researchers recently detected a strange break in signals from pulsars, they determined that this could have been the product of such an interaction.

“This is a very exciting signal! Although we don’t have definitive evidence yet, we may be starting to detect a background of gravitational waves,” said Siyuan Chen, a researcher at Peking University’s Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics in China, and said the leader of the new job in a statement.

Related: Gravitational Wave Treasure Shows Black Holes, Neutron Stars Colliding

The detection of gravitational waves in 2015 was one of the biggest astronomical milestones of the last decade. Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, published a century earlier, suggested that the fabric of space-time can ripple when massive objects, such as neutron stars and black holes, collide with each other, causing ripples that are felt at great distances. But it wasn’t until sophisticated detectors like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US and the Virgo Collaboration in Europe emerged that detection of these powerful vibrations became possible.

But some questions remained. Physicists have theorized that the summation of eons of waves produced by these cataclysmic events could have created a background of gravitational waves that is constantly present and permeates the entire universe; something that has not yet been detected.

Detection of the interrupted signal from millisecond pulsars may be just the step to prove the existence of this background.

Extremely dense and the size of a city, millisecond pulsars emit radio signals from their poles as they spin. The frequency of these signals is incredibly regular and can even be used as a kind of “galactic clock” against which other phenomena can be timed.

Based on an approach first described in January 2021, a team of astronomers working as part of the International Pulsar Timing Array (IPTA) project detected strange changes in these signals. They believe the disruption may be caused by background interference from gravitational waves.

But the team is also conservative about the findings, acknowledging that other possible explanations for their detections need to be ruled out. “We are also investigating what else this signal could be,” Boris Goncharov, a scientist at the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array (PPTA), who collaborated on the study, said in the statement. “For example, perhaps it could be due to noise that is present in the data for individual pulsars that may have been modeled incorrectly in our analyses.”

The IPTA data is made up of the combined findings of three independent data sets, collected by the European Pulsar Timing Array (EPTA), the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Wave (NANOGrav), and PPTA.

The research was published Wednesday (Jan. 12) in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Follow Doris Elin Urrutia on Twitter @salazar_elin. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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