‘Optical Pulsars’

Part of the Springer Praxis Books book series (PRAXIS)


The three astronomers stared intently at the screen with the ambivalence of high anticipation and low expectations. Two of them were theoretical astronomers on their first real experience in an astronomical observatory. After enduring good-natured joking from more experienced observers that such novices had been allowed near a telescope, the pair had managed to book time on a rather small, almost antique telescope that was well past its initial prime. Along the way, they had rallied the support of an experienced observational astronomer who had set up much of the equipment for them. Although primarily there to gain observing experience, the theoretical astronomers had chosen as their prey one of the hottest topics in astronomy at the time: the elusive optical pulsar. More experienced observers had tried and failed to detect optical pulsars and so they searched without much hope for telltale flashes of light that kept time with the recently discovered Crab pulsar that would indicate that pulsars emitted visible light pulses as well as radio pulses. Such a discovery would be quite a prize considering its implications for understanding pulsars. In this case the sign of success would be a distinctively curved line of green dots running across the center of the monitor. That cold winter evening in 1969 the astronomers stared at the screen in darkness and anticipation.


Neutron Star Light Curve Optical Pulse Radio Pulse Supernova Remnant 
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  1. 1.
    A. Hewish et al. Nature 217, February 24, 1968.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The Crab Nebula is roughly oval shaped and measures about 6’ by 4’. It is visible in amateur telescopes under dark skies.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    As it turned out, all the stars other than Baade’s star are background stars not associated with the Crab.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    A night assistant is a permanent observatory staff member whose job it is to run the telescopes for the visiting astronomers.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    This telescope was also being used to map the Moon’s surface in support of the Apollo missions to the Moon.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    As an aside, within a decade of those historic nights, the little telescope that had revolutionized pulsar astronomy fell into disuse. In 1982, however, it was handed over to the Spacewatch project, a search for near-Earth asteroids that pass perilously close to Earth and risk impact. It was fully refurbished and began observations in 1983. It continues to be an integral part of the Spacewatch program.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Roderick Willstrop’s entire account of the episode is reproduced in the Appendix on pp. 181-186.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Praxis Publishing Ltd. 2008

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