The clock-like nature of the arrival times of these pulses means that pulsars have been used for the most precise studies of our understanding of the General Relativity theory of gravity. The best pulsars, called millisecond pulsars, are the fastest rotating and keep accurate time to a millionth of a second over a year. The new work published in Science used the Lovell Telescope and they say it will improve studies of the origins of the Universe, including the search for gravitational waves. The discovery of gravitational waves, powerful ripples which have not yet
been directly observed but were predicted by Einstein, could allow scientists to study violent events such as the merging of super-massive black holes and help understand the Universe shortly after its formation in the Big Bang.
The team used observations from the Lovell telescope to explain these variations and to demonstrate a method by which they may be corrected.
University of Manchester Professor Andrew Lyne explains, "Mankind's best clocks all need corrections, perhaps for the effects of changing temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity or local magnetic field. Here, we have found a potential means of correcting an astrophysical clock."
The rate at which all pulsars spin is known to be decreasing very slowly. What the team has found is that the deviations arise because there are actually two spin-down rates and not one, and that the pulsar switches between them, abruptly and rather unpredictably.
The results give a completely new insight into the extreme conditions near neutron stars and also offer the potential for improving already very precise experiments in gravitation.
With the new technique, the scientists may be able to reveal the gravitational wave signals that are currently hidden because of the irregularities in the pulsar rotation.