An artist's rendering of a pulsar in deep space. Depositphotos.

Exotic Planets Orbit Pulsars, Lighthouses of the Universe

In contrast to our Solar System's near-circular orbits, these planets would orbit their stars on highly elliptical paths. Furthermore, unlike traditional star-planet systems, pulsar-planet systems undergo a vastly different formation process.

A rapidly rotating star, called a pulsar, was found to host the first-ever exoplanet 30 years ago. Now, astronomers believe that these planets might be extraordinarily rare.

There is no current understanding of what causes planets to form around pulsars, and what causes them to survive. This first discovered exoplanet system may be extraordinarily uncommon: less than 0.5% of all known pulsars could host Earth-mass planets based on information gathered from 800 pulsars over the last 50 years at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

During an explosion at the end of the life of a typical star, pulsars are born as dense neutron stars. The magnetic fields of these objects are extremely strong, they rotate rapidly, and they are exceptionally stable. As pulsars rotate, their magnetic poles emit beams of bright radio emission.

According to Iuliana Niţu, a Ph.D. student at the University of Manchester, pulse stars send out signals every time they rotate, much like cosmic lighthouses do. Radio telescopes then, can then pick up these signals and turn them into amazing scientific discoveries.

In pulsars, light is emitted in two opposite directions as two constant, narrow beams. In spite of the steady light, pulsars appear to flicker due to their spinning motion as well.

Similarly, when a sailor views a lighthouse from the ocean, it appears to blink because, as the pulsar rotates, the beam swings across the Earth, then disappears, then reappear. Astronomers on the ground perceive the light as blinking on and off as the pulsar moves. Unlike a lighthouse beam, the light beam of a pulsar spins around because the pulsar’s axis of rotation isn’t aligned with the beam of light.

The video below better explains what Pulsars are, how they work, and how astronomers look for them.

PSR B1257+12 was the first pulsar to be orbited by exoplanets discovered in 1992. At least three rocky planets similar to our Solar System’s planets are known to exist in the planetary system. Pulsars hosting planets have been discovered since then. There is little chance that planets would form normally around pulsars because of the violent conditions surrounding their birth and life, and many of these detected planets are unlike the planets we are familiar with.

University of Manchester astronomers conducted the largest search for planets orbiting pulsars ever conducted. They focused on signals that indicate the presence of companion planets and orbital times of up to 17 years and masses up to 100 times that of the Earth. Among the 10 possible discoveries, PSR J2007+3120 is the most promising. This is because it has the potential for at least two planets, each with a mass several times greater than Earth and orbital periods of 1.9 and 3.6 years.

Results of the research indicate that pulsar systems do not exhibit bias based on planet masses or orbital periods. In contrast to our Solar System’s near-circular orbits, these planets would orbit their stars on highly elliptical paths. In contrast to traditional star-planet systems, pulsar-planet systems undergo a vastly different formation process.

“Pulsars are incredibly interesting and exotic objects. Exactly 30 years ago, the first extra-solar planets were discovered around a pulsar, but we are yet to understand how these planets can form and survive in such extreme conditions. Finding out how common these are, and what they look like is a crucial step towards this,” explained Nițu.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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