Finding pulsars in the archives

China has a large community of astronomers awaiting the construction of new telescopes to study pulsars.

When CSIRO pulsar researcher Dr George Hobbs described the high-quality data stored in the Parkes Observatory Pulsar Data Archive—which is openly available—it led to Australian pulsar data being the basis of collaboration between Chinese and Australian pulsar researchers. And they have already published several papers on what they have discovered. The archive is also serving as a major resource in an international search for gravitational waves.

These are two of the more unexpected outcomes of a project that initially set out to fulfil a CSIRO commitment—to make data from the Parkes telescope available publicly within 18 months of observation.

“The data archive, which is fully automated and was established with financial support from the Australian National Data Service, ensures that important information is not lost,” CSIRO pulsar researcher Dr George Hobbs says. It also has freed CSIRO astronomers from the time consuming task of satisfying requests for data from all over the world.

Pulsars are collapsed stars, known as neutron stars. They are highly magnetic and rotate rapidly emitting radio waves in specific directions which sweep through space like lighthouse beams. From Earth, therefore, they appear to pulse in an extremely regular manner. About two-thirds of known pulsars have been detected by the Parkes telescope.

Not only are pulsars interesting astronomical objects in their own right, they can also be used as natural stopwatches to time other events in space. In late June 2012, a conference on the International Pulsar Timing Array was held in Sydney. This project aims to show the existence, or otherwise, of the gravitation waves proposed by Einstein. The idea is that such waves passing through Earth should actually move it slightly, enough to be detected through tiny fluctuations in the pulsar timing.

The archive is accessible through both Research Data Australia ( and CSIRO’s Data Access Portal (

Photo: Parkes radio telescope has detected about two-thirds of known pulsars
Credit: CSIRO

CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, George Hobbs, Tel: +61 2 9372 4652,,

Australian National Data Service (ANDS), Ross Wilkinson, Tel: +61 3 9902 0585,