(Submitted January 25, 1998)
What is the difference between pulsars and neutron stars?
If a pulsar is a neutron star, is every neutron star a pulsar?
A pulsar is a rotating neutron star that can produce radiation by spinning
its powerful magnetic field through space. (There are also 'accreting
pulsars' which funnel matter from a companion star onto their magnetic
polar caps as they rotate.)
A neutron star uses up a lot of its rotational energy moving its magnetic
field around this way, and and so it gradually slows down. When it slows
down enough, it no longer radiates very much energy, and so it is no longer
considered a pulsar. This usually happens within a few million years. If a
neutron star had only a weak magnetic field, it would also not be a pulsar.
Most neutron stars in the Universe are old enough and tired enough that
they are no longer pulsars. A recent paper estimates a thousand million
old neutron stars in our Galaxy, even though the number of known pulsars is
about a thousand.
for Ask an Astrophysicist