In a cosmic coup, astronomers have found a celestial beacon known as a pulsar in orbit with not one, but two other stars. The first-of-its-kind trio could soon be used to put Einstein's theory of gravity, or general relativity, to an unprecedented test.
"It's a wonderful laboratory that nature has given us," says Paulo Freire, a radio astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, who was not involved in the work. "It's almost made to order."
A pulsar consists of a neutron star, the leftover core of a massive star that has blown up in a supernova explosion. The core's own gravity squeezes it so intensely that the atomic nuclei meld into a single sphere of neutrons. The spinning neutron star also shines out a beam of radio waves that sweeps the sky just as the light beam from a lighthouse sweeps the sea. In fact, pulsars flash so regularly that they make natural timepieces whose ticking can be as steady as that of an atomic clock.
The incredible regularity makes it possible to determine whether the pulsar is in orbit with another object, as roughly 80 percent of the more than 300 fast-spinning "millisecond" pulsars are known to be. As the pulsar and its companion orbit each other, the distance between the pulsar and Earth varies slightly, so that it takes more or less time for the pulses of radio waves to reach Earth. As a result, the frequency of pulsing speeds up and slows down in a telltale cycle.
But such a simple scenario couldn't explain the peculiar warbles in the frequency of pulsar PSR J0337+1715, which Scott Ransom, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va., and colleagues discovered in 2007 with the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. Training other radio telescopes on the object, Ransom and colleagues kept it under near-constant surveillance for a year and a half. Eventually, Anne Archibald, a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, figured out exactly what's going on.