Cosmic Beacons: 50 Years of Pulsar Discoveries

August 2017


Dr. Brandon Lawton (STScI)


  • Dr. Carolyn Peruta (Sonoma State University)
  • Dr. Paul Ray (Naval Research Laboratory)
  • Dr. Craig Markwardt (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

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Transcript and audio recording:

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Briefing date: August 3, 2017 (3:30pm)


On August 6, 1967, Jocelyn Bell, using a newly commissioned radio antenna array, detected the first documented radio signal from a pulsar, then called CP 1919. Those first pulsars were all identified as radio sources, but since then we have observed pulsars in all wavelengths. Pulsars are the densest objects we can directly observe, emit radiation through processes we don’t fully understand, have been used as indirect proof of gravitational waves, and may be beacons we can use for navigation of spacecraft.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the first radio detection of a pulsar, several NASA missions are celebrating pulsar week. This science briefing, amid other events planned for pulsar week, will connect astronomers using NASA astrophysics missions to study pulsars with the informal science education community. During this Universe of Learning Science Briefing, attendees will get a brief history of pulsar discovery, a look at what NASA’s newest astrophysics missions are currently learning about pulsars, and get connected with hands-on activities that help learners understand these enigmatic objects.


Dr. Carolyn Peruta is a theoretical astrophysicist and science curriculum developer for the Sonoma State University Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) Group. Dr. Peruta studied physics and astronomy at the University of Arizona and earned her PhD in astrophysics from Michigan State University. As a member of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics, she focused on creating detailed models of star formation and feedback for cosmological simulations. 

Dr. Peruta joined the SSU E/PO group in 2013 to develop educational materials for NASA, NSF, and the US Department of Education. She has over 10 years’ experience in program development and curriculum design. Prior NSF and US Department of Education projects with optics and photonics have been adopted by 11 museums and science centers across the country, including the New York Hall of Science, the Colorado Space Grant Consortium, and the Chabot Space and Science Center.

Dr. Paul Ray is an astrophysicist and Head of the X-ray/UV Astrophysics and Applications Section at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. He received his undergraduate degree in physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and then earned his PhD in physics from the California Institute of Technology. His primary research interests are studies of astrophysical compact objects including pulsars, neutron stars, and black holes across the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio frequencies to gamma-rays. Currently, he is a Co-Investigator on the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) mission, and is an active member of the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT) collaboration and the North American Nanohertz Gravitational-wave Observatory (NANOGrav).

Dr. Craig Markwardt is an astrophysicist working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  Dr. Markwardt leads the scientific data processing and calibration efforts for the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), which was launched and activated in June of 2017.   He studies how the extreme gravity of pulsars and neutron stars can pull matter from nearby orbiting companion stars.  Before NICER, Dr. Markwardt studied similar X-ray science with NASA's Swift, NuSTAR and Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer missions.  Markwardt came to Goddard from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where he earned his PhD studying how pulsars interact with their environments.