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Church joins star band with pulsar find.

A scientist at Birmingham University has joined an elite band of astronomers after making an extraordinary discovery completely by accident.

Dr Michael Church has become one of only a handful of scientists to find an uncharted X-ray pulsar up to 30,000 light years away.

But it could be more than a year before he sees the star again because it can only be viewed with the help of three specialist satellites across the globe - at locations in Japan, Holland or America.

Dr Church has hailed the discovery as a terrific breakthrough for Birmingham and for science in this country.

His find consists of a dense neutron star about five miles in radius orbiting a giant stellar companion 70,000 times bigger.

The larger star rains down blobs of matter on to the neutron star's magnetic poles and the energy is emitted as X-rays. It is called a pulsar because it emits X-rays like a lighthouse beacon.

Spotted in the constellation of Centaurus, the neutron star is so hot it cannot be seen with an ordinary telescope.

Only 40 such finds have been made in 35 years.

Dr Church stumbled upon his discovery in April while he was working with images recorded in August 1997 from the international SAX satellite in Holland.

He said: "I was working on another source at the time but there was this other source on the image off the satellite.

"There then followed a process of checking with the catalogues to see if it was known and it did not appear in that part of the sky."

Dr Church made further checks of the stars before he was finally sure his discovery was completely new.

Apart from the SAX, only the XTE satellite at Nasa in America and Asca in Japan can pick up the image of the X-ray pulsar.

All three are heavily overbooked, and such is the rush to use them that each scientist can only use them for a day.

Dr Church and a team of three other colleagues from Britain, England and Holland who have been helping him with his work have now put together a detailed explanation of what they have found - and why they want to use another day of images from a satellit e.

Dr Church, who has worked at the university since 1975, said he was confident an international panel of scientists who decide who can use the satellites would look favourably on his work.

But it could be any time between January and December next year before he gets to see the star again - which is between 15,000 and 30,000 light years away and called 1SAX 1324.4-6200, after its position and which satellite it was picked up on.

Unfortunately for him, X-ray pulsars are not named after the finder.

Dr Church said although he had found new information about objects in space several times, he said his latest work was his finest achievement.

"This is one of the best.

"Everyone in astronomy is looking for something different. But we get the same kind of excitement from finding something different about things which we are already looking at.

"By studying it further we can probe the properties and behaviour of matter at the extreme edge, existing in temperatures up to 100million degrees Celsius.

"It's a terrific find for Birmingham - and the UK," he added.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 30, 1998
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