Radio pulsars emit regular bursts of radio radiation that propagate through the interstellar medium (ISM), the tenuous gas and plasma between the stars. Previously known dispersive properties of the ISM cause low-frequency pulses to be delayed in time with respect to high frequency ones. This effect can be explained by the presence of free electrons in the medium. The ISM also contains neutral hydrogen that has a well-known resonance at 1420.4 MHz. Electromagnetic theory predicts that at such a resonance, the induced dispersive effects will be drastically different from those of the free electrons. Pulses traveling through a cloud of neutral hydrogen should undergo \"anomalous dispersion,\" which causes the group velocity of the medium to be larger than the speed of light in vacuum. This superluminal group velocity causes pulses containing frequencies near the resonance to arrive earlier in time with respect to other pulses. Hence, these pulses appear to travel faster than light. This phenomenon is caused by an interplay between the timescales present in the pulse and the timescales present in the medium. Although counter-intuitive, it does not violate the laws of special relativity. Here, we present Arecibo observations of the radio pulsar PSR B1937+21 that show clear evidence of anomalous dispersion. Though this effect is known in laboratory physics, this is the first time it has been directly observed in an astrophysical context, and it has the potential to be a useful tool for studying the properties of neutral hydrogen in the Galaxy. Â© 2010 The American Astronomical Society.
F. A. Jenet, et. al., (2010) Apparent faster-than-light pulse propagation in interstellar space: A new probe of the interstellar medium.Astrophysical Journal710:21718. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1088/0004-637X/710/2/1718