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NASA: What is a Pulsar?

Artist concept art of a white dwarf in the AE Aquarii system. Credit: NASA/Casey Reed

Artist concept art of a white dwarf in the AE Aquarii system. Credit: NASA/Casey Reed

A pulsar is a neutron star that emits beams of radiation that sweep through Earth’s line of sight. Like a black hole, it is an endpoint to stellar evolution. The “pulses” of high-energy radiation we see from a pulsar are due to a misalignment of the neutron star’s rotation axis and its magnetic axis. Pulsars seem to pulse from our perspective because the rotation of the neutron star causes the beam of radiation generated within the magnetic field to sweep in and out of our line of sight with a regular period, somewhat like the beam of light from a lighthouse. The stream of light is, in reality, continuous, but to a distant observer, it seems to wink on and off at regular intervals.

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