Vela Pulsar

The Vela Pulsar (PSR B0833-45 or PSR J0835-4510) is a radio, optical, X-ray and gamma-ray emitting pulsar associated with the Vela Supernova Remnant, at a distance of about 950 light years. The Vela supernova remnant is the debris of the explosion of a massive star about 11,000 years ago. The pulsar is the collapsed core of this star, rotating about 11 times a second.

It has a rotational period of 89 milliseconds (the shortest known at the time of its discovery) and this remnant from the supernova explosion 11,000 years ago is estimated to be travelling at 1,200 km/s (750 mi/s).

The current position of the Vela Pulsar as viewed from HawkRAO (-33.6°S, 150.7°E) is shown by the graphic below (updated every minute or so during live operating - refresh your browser to see that latest update). Shown on the graphic is a representation of the movement of Vela with the horizon, purple observation epoch circle sector outline and antenna beamwidth circle sector (green fill) superimposed.

A pulsar is a neutron star which spins rapidly. An intense magnetic field surrounding the star forms two radio beams which sweep space as the star rotates. As the beams rotate, if one of the beams points in our direction, a 'pulse' of radio energy is received here.


Listen to a recording of the Vela pulsar (PSR B0833-45) made at the Green Bank 140-ft telescope of the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Charlottesville VA, in September, 1970. The observing frequency was 1664 MHz with an IF bandwidth of 4 MHz. The Vela pulsar has a pulse period of 89 ms and the audio is the detected signal with a time constant of about 1 ms.

Credit: R. N. Manchester (Source: ATNF CSIRO )

Simple geometry shows only one of the two beams can ever point in our direction unless the angle between the rotation and magnetic axes approaches 90°.

So a 'pulsar' - short for 'pulsating star'- is not actually pulsating, but two relatively constant beams sweeping space make it appear so. Remarkably only those pulsars that have one or both of those beams pointing in our direction can be detected as pulsars - meaning the total population of pulsars probably far exceeds the number detected.

Note also that the magnetic field poles of the neutron star need to be offset from the spin axis of the star to effect the sweeping motion of the beams.

The intrinsic widths of these beams are generally narrow, resulting in apparent pulse widths of few % of the period of the pulse. A typical figure is 5% - although for some pulsars the position of the beam w.r.t. the spin axis causes a wider observed width. For most pulsars the observed pulse width increases with decreasing frequency due to scattering in the interstellar medium.

Vela Pulsar Characteristics


RA: Right ascension (hours minutes seconds)

Dec: Declination (degrees minutes seconds)

P0: Barycentric period of the pulsar (s)

DM: Dispersion measure (cm-3 pc)

W50: Width of pulse at 50% of peak (ms)

W10: Width of pulse at 10% of peak (ms)

S400: Mean flux density at 400 MHz (mJy)

Scintillation effects are relatively benign for this pulsar - variations due to diffractive scintillation occur in a much shorter time frame than typical observation times and so such variations average out. Longer terms diffractive and refractive effects have a low modulation index (variations are not large: generally limited less than 3 dB) making the day-to-day variations relatively small compared with, say, B0329+54.

One notable characteristic is that the radiation from the Vela pulsar is almost completely polarised - predominantly linear, but with some degree of circular polarisation. This is an important factor as using a linearly-polarised antenna could result in periods of cross-polarisation leading to loss in signal strength. This consideration drove the adoption of a circularly-polarised antenna system. Dual orthogonal linear probes could have been used, but that would require a duplication of the receiver chain - a complication not attractive at this stage.