Pulse@Parkes lets students study pulsars

Pulse@Parkes has let over one thousand Australian high school students take control of the Parkes Radio Telescope to study pulsars and contribute to long-term professional research projects since 2007. The students meet at the Australia Telescope National Facility headquarters in Sydney where they give directions to the scientists and staff at the Parkes Observatory. The data they collect lets them measure the distance to a pulsar and its properties. It also lets professional scientists conduct research on the long-term behavior of pulsars.

Built fifty years ago in New South Wales, Parkes was the largest targetable radio telescope in the world at sixty-four meters. It played a key role in the Apollo program when it received the television broadcast from the Apollo 11 landing (watch The Dish for an entertaining dramatization of those events). Today it continues to produce outstanding research: Parkes is the third most-cited radio telescope in peer-reviewed research. Much of that research focuses on pulsars.

A pulsar is the dense remnant of a supernova explosion. Its spin generates an intense magnetic field that sends beams of photons streaming from the magnetic poles. If the magnetic and rotational axes aren’t aligned then the beam of light sweeps a circular path - sort of like a lighthouse shining in the night. We see a star that seems to pulse as the beam of light regularly sweeps across Earth.

The Pulse@Parkes scientists want to study pulsars’ long-term behavior, but they faced a problem with the way professional science works. Their research into the long-term behavior of pulsars takes too long under traditional grant cycles to produce results. Research projects must demonstrate progress within a few years to stay in business. On top of that their research requires more observing time than observatory allocation committees are willing to award individual projects. The demand for time on the world’s observatories is much greater than the telescopes can handle. Many of the world’s observatories are oversubscribed three or four times beyond the time available. Allocation committees “spread the wealth” across many researchers and research subjects to create the biggest scientific impact possible. Long-term pulsar research consumes too much observing time and takes too long to generate results for the traditional approach to professional science. 

The Pulse@Parkes program solved this problem by blending research and education. High school students in the program get hands-on experience conducting real research using a world-class observatory. Their research collects the data the Pulse@Parkes scientists need for their long-term research. The combination of educational and scientific value justifies giving the program observing time each month. Besides the scientists’ core research, the students’ data supports the Fermi and Agile gamma-ray space telescope missions as well as the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array project. You can read more about the science behind Pulse@Parkes in the project’s peer-reviewed article in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia. (doi: 10.1071/AS09021 or arXiv:0907.4847)