Feb. 28, 2011 at 10:24 PM ET
The volunteers participating in the Einstein @ Home computer program have done it again: Two computer users from Russia and Britain have crunched the data for the discovery of a radio pulsar roughly 31,000 light-years away.
Like SETI @ Home, the Einstein @ Home system knits together hundreds of thousands of individual computers to create the equivalent of one big super-duper-computer for searching through astronomical data. Almost 250,000 volunteers are participating in the program.
Instead of looking for signals from alien beacons, as SETI @ Home does, the computers working for Einstein @ Home sift through data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, for any signs of gravity waves. If Einstein @ Home were to detect such waves, that would serve to confirm Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity and mark a breakthrough in physics.
No gravity waves have been found so far. But the Einstein @ Home has been expanded to take on another task: checking radio readings from the Arecibo Observatory for evidence of pulsar flashes. Last year, the program made its first confirmed detection: a pulsar known as PSR J2007+2722, which was detected with the highest level of certainty on computers in Iowa and Germany.
Now researchers have submitted a paper about the second pulsar detection to the arXiv.org document server.
Bruce Allen, who is Einstein @ Home's project leader and director of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute), said this second radio pulsar is more interesting than the first.
"This pulsar is in a binary system, is rotating 48 times per second, and is orbiting a massive white-dwarf companion once every 9.4 hours," he told me in an e-mail. "The pulsar, called J1952+2630, was found in data collected at Arecibo Observatory in 2005. The pulsar is particularly interesting because the orbit is very circular, which indicates that the companion star is a white dwarf. But the companion star is several times more massive than a normal white dwarf companion star; it has a minimum mass of 0.95 solar masses. Most likely, this pulsar belongs to the rare class of intermediate-mass binary pulsars, of which previously five were known."
The clearest evidence for the pulsar's existence was provided by computers operated by two volunteers: Vitaly Shiryaev, a Russian researcher who has a Ph.D. in radio physics; and Stacey Eastham, who does vehicle testing for the British government in Darwen. In his profile, Eastham says he's studying astronomy and physics on the side. He got involved in the Einstein @ Home project because he's interested in "anything space-like, and being able to be part of something like this is right up my street."
Both men are mentioned in the acknowledgments at the end of the scientific paper. On the project's message board, Allen also passes along "a big 'thank you' to all Einstein @ Home volunteers, whose continuing support makes these exciting discoveries possible."
If that's the sort of fame you're lusting after, or if helping out with Einstein @ Home simply sounds like something that's right up your street, check out the project home page and sign up to participate.
More science you can take part in:
Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about Alan Boyle's book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto."