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Top High-Energy Astronomy Prize Awarded
For Clocking Pulsars

Media Contact:
Dr. Ilana Harrus
High Energy Astrophysics Division Press Officer
imh@lheapop.gsfc.nasa.gov
301-286-9649

issued by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

January 18. 2006 Greenbelt, MD -- Three scientists share this year's Bruno Rossi Prize for their pioneering work on understanding the exotic environment around fast-spinning neutron stars, where matter can whirl about at nearly light speed and where space itself is warped. The prize is the top award given each year by the High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

The winners are Tod Strohmayer of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., Deepto Chakrabarty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Rudy Wijnands of the University of Amsterdam.

Their work, done both independently and sometimes as collaborators, has been described as breakthrough in interpreting the complex signals emitted as X-ray light from millisecond pulsars. A millisecond pulsar is a type of fast-spinning neutron star in a binary system with an ordinary star. Gas pulled away from the surface of the companion star crashes onto the neutron star, spinning it up to rotation rates of hundreds of revolutions per second.

These scientists have revealed that oscillations in the emitted X-ray light can be used to measure the pulsar's spin rate and other key parameters. Their observations were made with NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, which marks its tenth year in orbit this month.

"This is an unexpected honor," said Strohmayer. "This award really acknowledges the community who built, operates and interprets data from the Rossi Explorer. Without the dedication of many scientists and engineers, none of the observations that my co-winners and I have made would have been possible."

Strohmayer, an expert on thermonuclear X-ray bursts emitted from the surface of neutron stars, credits Jean Swank, the Rossi Explorer project scientist, also at NASA Goddard, for giving him the opportunity to join the Rossi team.

Deepto Chakrabarty, an associate professor of physics at MIT and a researcher at MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, is an expert on millisecond pulsars. He credits his MIT colleagues and collaborators, especially research scientist Edward Morgan, for making his discoveries possible.

"Bruno Rossi was a giant at MIT; and as a MIT professor, I am humbled to receive an award named in his honor," Chakrabarty said. "The Rossi Explorer is a powerful tool to probe the environs of black holes and neutron stars. It has been thrilling to join my colleagues in so many discoveries."

Rudy Wijnands, a member of the University of Amsterdam's High-Energy Astrophysics Group, discovered the first accreting millisecond pulsar, in 1998. He is an expert in interpreting signals from X-ray pulsars called quasi-periodic oscillations, or QPOs, emitted from gas whipping around the pulsar at high speeds.

"I am very happy and thrilled that I received this award and that the work of myself and of Deepto and Tod is recognized as being important," said Wijnands. "I feel honored to be among the list of scientists who have received this award."

The HEAD-AAS awards the Rossi Prize in recognition of significant contributions as well as recent and original work in high-energy astrophysics. Past awards have been given for work, both theoretical and observational, in the fields of neutrinos, cosmic rays, gamma rays and X-rays. The prize is in honor of Professor Bruno Rossi, an authority on cosmic-ray physics and a pioneer in the field of X-ray astronomy. Bruno Rossi died in 1993. The prize also includes an engraved certificate and a $1,500 award, which will be shared among the winners.


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