In April, a group of astronomers discovered a brief, powerful explosion of radio waves from space and then successfully figured out where they came from: a powerful object in our own galaxy. It’s the first time that scientists have been able to locate these mysterious radio waves from the Milky Way, making them the closest of their kind we’ve ever seen.
The radio waves – known as Fast Radio Bursts or FRBs – appear to have emerged from an incredibly powerful “zombie” star lurking in our galaxy, according to three articles published in the magazine nature. The object is called a neutron star and is a super dense holdover that is created when a massive star larger than our own sun collapses. But this neutron star is a so-called magnetar. It houses an incredibly strong magnetic field that stores mind-blowing amounts of energy that can distort the shapes of atoms.
Tracking down the source of this FRB is a big moment for astronomers interested in finding out how these mysterious radio flashes are created. It is believed that FRBs appear in the night sky once every second and only flare up for a few milliseconds at a time. But we’ve only seen a tiny fraction of these phenomena in the game and all of the outbursts that we have to have apparently originating from outside our galaxy, with some localized billions of light years away. That made it difficult to find out exactly where they came from. “Those are these very mysterious signals, and we don’t have a really good idea of what they’re producing or what’s the physics behind them,” says Kiyoshi Masui, assistant professor of physics at MIT who worked on the discovery The edge.
With this discovery, astronomers now have a much tighter source to work with. The Magnetar is only 30,000 light years away – cosmically speaking, in our own backyard. And it suggests a solid connection between magnetars and these dynamic space radio waves. “This is the missing link,” says Masui. “Now we’ve seen a fast burst from a magnetar, which proves that at least some of the fast bursts we see in the universe are from magnetars.”
Scientists have been trying to determine the origins of FRBs since the first was discovered in 2007. However, because FRBs are so volatile, it has often been necessary to find them in the right place at the right time with the right equipment. Astronomers were lucky to find a couple of FRBs that appear to be repeating and flashing over and over in the same part of the sky. These recurring bursts helped scientists pinpoint the galaxies from which these radio waves originated. However, it is unclear which objects in these galaxies produce the FRBs.
That is why this discovery is so important. Two different observatories in North America – CHIME in Canada and STARE2 in the US – spotted this FRB from the same part of the sky, adding to the credibility of the signal. The FRB was also incredibly bright. According to Christopher Bochenek, a PhD student in astronomy at Caltech who led the STARE2 discovery team, a standard 4G LTE cellphone receiver could have picked up the signal from half the galaxy.
“When I looked at the data for the first time, I froze and was paralyzed with excitement,” said Bochenek during a press conference.
The timing and location of the lightning bolt coincided with another cosmic event nearby. Just days before the FRB was discovered, astronomers determined that a known magnetar in the sky had become quite hyperactive, emitting X-rays and gamma rays. After analyzing the data from the FRB, astronomers at both CHIME and STARE2 confirmed that the radio waves coincided with a particularly large X-ray burst from the magnetar. The discovery made waves in the astronomy community earlier this year. Early scientific reports on the compound were published online and published in the media. The researchers’ results have now been reviewed by other scientists and will be officially presented in the journal nature this week.
Magnetars could be a pretty good origin story for many FRBs. Scientists have suspected that these dead magnetic stars could be stuck behind radio flashes for a while as they are full of energy and tend to emit various bursts of light for fractions of a second. “This discovery therefore paints a picture that some and perhaps most – given the frequency of these events in the universe – rapid radio bursts from other galaxies originate from magnetars,” said Bochenek.
But astronomers are not yet announcing the secret behind FRBs that has just been solved. For one thing, astronomers continued to observe the magnetar as it bumped up more x-rays and gamma rays, but these sequel events were inconsistent with significant radio wave bursts. Plus, this outbreak was still relatively weak compared to other FRBs we’ve seen. It is actually 1000 times weaker than the faintest FRB discovered from outside our galaxy. So the mechanics are not yet fully understood.
The good news is that astronomers have some pretty good suspects to investigate. Not only can you study this one magnetar further, but there are around 30 other known magnetars that are likely to get a lot of extra attention right now. And astronomers could focus on finding FRBs in other galaxies where magnetars are suspected. That might give us a better understanding if that one event were an offshoot – or the final piece of the FRB puzzle.
“We still don’t know exactly how lucky we were,” says Bochenek. “It could be like one thing every five years. Or there could be some of these things that happen every year. But with more events we could tell exactly how lucky we were … “
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