Every physicist is taught that information cannot be transmitted faster than the speed of light. Yet laboratory experiments done over the last 30 years clearly show that some things appear to break this speed limit without upturning Einstein's special theory of relativity. Now, astrophysicists in the US have seen such superluminal speeds in space – which could help us to gain a better understanding of the composition of the regions between stars.

Superluminal speeds are associated with a phenomenon known as anomalous dispersion, whereby the refractive index of a medium (such as an atomic gas) increases with the wavelength of transmitted light. When a light pulse – which is comprised of a group of light waves at a number of different wavelengths – passes through such a medium, its group velocity can be boosted to beyond the velocity of its constituent waves. However, the energy of the pulse still travels at the speed of light, which means that information is transferred in agreement with Einstein's theory.

Now, astrophysicists claim to have witnessed this phenomenon in radio pulses that have travelled from a distant pulsar.

Modified pulses

The discovery has been made at the University of Texas at Brownsville, where Frederick Jenet and colleagues have been monitoring a pulsar – a rapidly spinning neutron star – more than 10,000 light years away. As pulsars spin, they emit a rotating beam of radiation that flashes past distant observers at regular intervals like a lighthouse. Because the pulses are modified as they travel through the interstellar medium, astrophysicists can use them to probe the nature of the cosmos.

Several factors are known to affect the pulses. Neutral hydrogen can absorb them, free electrons can scatter them and an additional magnetic field can rotate their polarization. Plasma in the interstellar medium also causes dispersion, which means pulses with longer wavelengths are affected by a smaller refractive index.

Timing is off

Jenet's group thinks that anomalous dispersion should be added to this list. Using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, they took radio data of the pulsar PSR B1937+21 at 1420.4 MHz with a 1.5 MHz bandwidth for three days. Oddly, those pulses close to the centre value arrived earlier than would be expected given the pulsar's normal timing, and therefore appeared to have travelled faster than the speed of light.

The cause of the anomalous dispersion for these pulses, according to the Brownsville astrophysicists, is the resonance of neutral hydrogen, which lies at 1420.4 MHz. But like anomalous dispersion seen in the lab, the pulsar's superluminal pulses do not violate causality or relativity because, technically, no information is carried in the pulse. Still, Jenet and colleagues believe that the phenomenon could be used to pick out the properties of clouds of neutral hydrogen in our galaxy.

'Solid result'

"It seems to be very interesting indeed...a solid and rather nice result," says Michael Kramer, an astrophysicist at the University of Manchester who was not involved with the study.

Andrew Lyne, a pulsar astrophysicist who is also based at Manchester, thinks it is an "interesting, if not unexpected result". However, he has doubts that it could help in the understanding of neutral-hydrogen clouds because there are often several clouds in the same line of sight. "It is not clear from the paper quite what extra information will be obtained," he adds.

The research will be published in the Astrophysical Journal. A preprint is available at arXiv:0909.2445v2.