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13 Aug 2010

By putting their home computers to work when they would otherwise be idle, three "citizen scientists" have discovered a rare astronomical object.

The unusual find is called a "disrupted binary pulsar"; these pulsars can be created when a massive star collapses.

The discoverers, from the US and Germany found the object with the help of the Einstein@Home project.

It asks users to donate time on their computers, allowing them to be used for searching through scientific data.

This type of project is known as "distributed computing". Einstein@Home harnesses the power of home machines in order to process large amounts of data.

Credited with the discovery are Chris and Helen Colvin, both information technology professionals from Iowa, US, and systems analyst Daniel Gebhardt from Mainz in Germany.

Their computers, along with 500,000 others from around the world, are being used to analyse data for Einstein@Home.

Users download a screensaver which, among other things, shows the area of sky being processed.

The newly discovered radio pulsar, given the designation PSR J2007+2722, is a fast-spinning neutron star which can be formed in certain types of supernovae, or stellar explosions.

This lone pulsar rotates 41 times per second and has an unusually low magnetic field.

Jim Cordes, professor of astronomy at Cornell University in Ithaca, US, said the object once had a companion star from which it acquired mass. But this companion has since exploded; this has kicked the surviving object free.

"We think there should be more of these disrupted binary pulsars, but there haven't been that many found," said Professor Cordes.

The pulsar was discovered in data collected by the Arecibo Observatory
"No matter what else we find out about it, this pulsar is bound to be extremely interesting for understanding the basic physics of neutron stars and how they form."

He said the discovery demonstrated the power of such distributed computing networks to collect and sort through vast amounts of data.

Einstein@Home was originally organised to find gravitational waves - ripples in space-time. The latest find was made by searching through radio astronomy data collected the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, US.

About one-third of Einstein@Home's computing capacity is used to search Arecibo data.

It is the first deep space discovery made by the project.

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