Astronomers trace mysterious space radio waves to a source within our galaxy


In April, a group of astronomers spotted a short, powerful blast of radio waves coming from outer space and then successfully found where it was coming from: a powerful object within our own galaxy.

The discovery is the first time that researchers have pinpointed the location of this radio burst. Fast Radio Bursts, or FRBs, seem to have projected from a powerful “zombie” star lurking in our galaxy, according to three papers published in the Journal Nature.

A neutron star is a super dense leftover that forms when a massive star, less than 3 solar masses, shrinks in on itself. But this Neutron Star is what’s known as a Magnetar. It hosts an incredibly powerful magnetic field that stores a monstrous amount of energy, capable of distorting the shapes of atoms. Magnetars are so dense that a tablespoon of material would weigh more than 900 billion kg. FBRs are thought to appear once every second in the night sky, sparking for just a few milliseconds.

The recorded FBR is located approximately 30,000 light-years away from Earth. That means they burst 30,000 years ago and are now being captured. “They’re these very mysterious signals, and we don’t have a really good idea of what’s producing them or what’s the Physics behind it”, Kiyoshi Masui, assistant professor of Physics at MIT tells The Verge.

The first-ever FBR was discovered in 2007. It required a combination of the right location, the right time, and the right equipment. Astronomers were lucky that they found a few FBRs that appear to be repeating over again in the same part of the sky. Two observatories, CHIME and STARE2 spotted this FBR.

This FBR was so bright that a regular cell phone with 4G Voice Over Long Term Evolution (VOLTE) would have been able to pick the signal, according to Christopher Bochenek, who was leading the STARE2 discovery team. “When I looked at the data for the first time I froze and was basically paralyzed with excitement,” Bochenek said during a press call.

But astronomers aren’t proclaiming the mystery behind FRBs to be solved just yet. For one, Magnetar releases more than X-rays, it also releases Gamma, infrared, and microwaves, but those follow-up events didn’t match up with any significant radio wave burst. Plus, this FBR was 1000 times weaker than the weakest FBR ever recorded.

One hypothesis says that Magnetars are defined according to their “spin.” Due to excessively fast spins, Magnetars diffuse energy from its poles, causing FBRs. And the different frequency waves travel a certain distance. But still, the mechanics at play are not fully understood.

The good news is astronomers have pretty good suspects to probe. Around 30 other known Magnetars will get a lot of attention now, and also might focus on finding different FBRs outside the galaxy. This will give a better understanding of this mysterious event. “We still don’t really know exactly how lucky we got”, Bochenek added, “This could be like once in a five-year thing, but with more events, we would be able to tell exactly the precise physics behind this.”



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