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Citizen scientists find new purpose in pulsar search

Bruce Allen, leader of the Einstein@Home project. Image courtesy N. Michalke / AEI Hannover

A project that lets citizen volunteers contribute to scientists' search for gravitational waves, theoretical ripples in the fabric of space-time, has expanded its efforts -- with impressive results.

The Einstein@Home project began in 2005 as a way for people to donate idle computing time to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. LIGO facilities in Washington and Louisiana watch for gravitational waves set off by collisions between neutron stars to subtly disrupt beams of light as they bounce between mirrors.

Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves based on his theory of relativity in 1916. But Einstein@Home users and LIGO scientists have yet to spot any.

So in 2009, the Einstein@Home project began using volunteers' computers to comb through data from additional sources: the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, the Arecibo Observatory and the Parkes Radio Telescope. They have yet to find gravitational waves, but they've become quite accomplished at finding young neutron stars, called pulsars.

“The chance of finding a new pulsar is one in 10 million," said Bruce Allen, head of Einstein@Home, in an interview for the publication iSGTW. In less than two years, Einstein@Home users have already found 27.

These discoveries, in turn, may feed back into future research into gravitational waves. Some scientists think that they can use the pulsars themselves, which emit measurable X-rays as they spin, to conduct enormous-scale versions of the light-beam experiments at LIGO. The more pulsars Einstein@Home users help find, the more resources seekers of gravitational waves will have.

Read the iSGTW article.
Learn more about participating in Einstein@Home.