Letter | Published:

Alteration of the magnetosphere of the Vela pulsar during a glitch

Naturevolume 556pages219222 (2018) | Download Citation


As pulsars lose energy, primarily in the form of magnetic dipole radiation, their rotation slows down accordingly. For some pulsars, this spin-down is interrupted by occasional abrupt spin-up events known as glitches1. A glitch is hypothesized to be a catastrophic release of pinned vorticity2 that provides an exchange of angular momentum between the superfluid outer core and the crust. This is manifested by a minute alteration in the rotation rate of the neutron star and its co-rotating magnetosphere, which is revealed by an abrupt change in the timing of observed radio pulses. Measurement of the flux density, polarization and single-pulse arrival times of the glitch with high time resolution may reveal the equation of state of the crustal superfluid, its drag-to-lift ratio and the parameters that describe its friction with the crust3. This has not hitherto been possible because glitch events happen unpredictably. Here we report single-pulse radio observations of a glitch in the Vela pulsar, which has a rotation frequency of 11.2 hertz. The glitch was detected on 2016 December 12 at 11:36 universal time, during continuous observations of the pulsar over a period of three years. We detected sudden changes in the pulse shape coincident with the glitch event: one pulse was unusually broad, the next pulse was missing (a ‘null’) and the following two pulses had unexpectedly low linear polarization. This sequence was followed by a 2.6-second interval during which pulses arrived later than usual, indicating that the glitch affects the magnetosphere.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    Rees, M. J. & Trimble, V. L. Physical sciences: planet, pulsar, “glitch” and wisp. Nature 229, 395–396 (1971).

  2. 2.

    Anderson, P. W. & Itoh, N. Pulsar glitches and restlessness as a hard superfluidity phenomenon. Nature 256, 25–27 (1975).

  3. 3.

    Sourie, A., Chamel, N., Novak, J. & Oertel, M. Global numerical simulations of the rise of vortex-mediated pulsar glitches in full general relativity. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 464, 4641–4657 (2017).

  4. 4.

    Biggs, J. D. An analysis of radio pulsar nulling statistics. Astrophys. J. 394, 574–580 (1992).

  5. 5.

    Johnston, S., van Straten, W., Kramer, M. & Bailes, M. High time resolution observations of the Vela pulsar. Astrophys. J. 549, L101–L104 (2001).

  6. 6.

    Rankin, J. M. Toward an empirical theory of pulsar emission. III - mode changing, drifting subpulses, and pulse nulling. Astrophys. J. 301, 901–922 (1986).

  7. 7.

    Sedrakian, A. & Cordes, J. M. Vortex-interface interactions and generation of glitches in pulsars. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 307, 365–375 (1999).

  8. 8.

    Krishnamohan, S. & Downs, G. S. Intensity dependence of the pulse profile and polarization of the Vela pulsar. Astrophys. J. 265, 372–388 (1983).

  9. 9.

    van Straten, W. & Bailes, M. DSPSR: digital signal processing software for pulsar astronomy. Publ. Astron. Soc. Aust. 28, 1–14 (2011).

  10. 10.

    Hotan, A. W., van Straten, W. & Manchester, R. N. PSRCHIVE and PSRFITS: an open approach to radio pulsar data storage and analysis. Publ. Astron. Soc. Aust. 21, 302–309 (2004).

  11. 11.

    van Straten, W. High-fidelity radio astronomical polarimetry using a millisecond pulsar as a polarized reference source. Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser. 204, 13 (2013).

  12. 12.

    Hobbs, G. B., Edwards, R. T. & Manchester, R. N. TEMPO2, a new pulsar-timing package–I. An overview. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 369, 655–672 (2006).

  13. 13.

    Edwards, R. T., Hobbs, G. B. & Manchester, R. N. TEMPO2, a new pulsar timing package–II. The timing model and precision estimates. Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc. 372, 1549–1574 (2006).

  14. 14.

    Sarkissian, J. M., Reynolds, J. E., Hobbs, G. & Harvey-Smith, L. One year of monitoring the Vela pulsar using a phased array feed. Publ. Astron. Soc. Aust. 34, e027 (2017).

Download references


We thank the staff at the School of Physical Sciences of the University of Tasmania who assisted in the observing programme. J.P. especially thanks B. Reid, E. Baynes and B. Bedson for on-site support at the 26-m and 30-m radio telescopes. J.P. also thanks N. Bochenek and W. Kean Tai for assisting in the searches of previous ‘nulls’. We acknowledge the Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship, which helped fund this research, and the Tasmanian Partnership for Advanced Computing (TPAC) at the University of Tasmania, which is funded by the Australian Government through its NCRIS and RDSI programmes, for use of the 2.3-PB storage facility.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks J. Cordes and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information


  1. University of Tasmania, Sandy Bay, Tasmania, Australia

    • Jim Palfreyman
    • , John M. Dickey
    •  & Simon Ellingsen
  2. CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, Kensington, Western Australia, Australia

    • Aidan Hotan
  3. Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand

    • Willem van Straten


  1. Search for Jim Palfreyman in:

  2. Search for John M. Dickey in:

  3. Search for Aidan Hotan in:

  4. Search for Simon Ellingsen in:

  5. Search for Willem van Straten in:


J.P. conducted all the observations, led the analysis and the writing of the manuscript and produced all the plots. J.M.D. provided input on the manuscript and analysis. W.v.S. conducted the polarization calibration and assisted with the manuscript and analysis. S.E. and A.H. assisted with the manuscript and analysis.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jim Palfreyman.

Extended data figures and tables

  1. Extended Data Table 1 Arrival times of the 2016 glitch of the Vela pulsar
  2. Extended Data Table 2 Arrival times of key events at the Solar System barycentre

Supplementary information

About this article

Publication history







By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.