ALL NEWS

Flash of luck: Astronomers find cosmic radio burst source

Nov 5, 2020, 6:49 AM
This image from video animation provided by NASA in November 2020 depicts a powerful X-ray burst er...
This image from video animation provided by NASA in November 2020 depicts a powerful X-ray burst erupting from a magnetar – a supermagnetized version of a stellar remnant known as a neutron star. A radio burst detected April 28, 2020, occurred during a flare-up like this on a magnetar called SGR 1935. The radio signal was more powerful than any previously seen in our galaxy. The simultaneous X-ray and radio events implicate magnetars as a likely source of mysterious fast radio bursts observed from other galaxies. (Chris Smith (USRA)/NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center via AP)
(Chris Smith (USRA)

A flash of luck helped astronomers solve a cosmic mystery: What causes powerful but fleeting radio bursts that zip and zigzag through the universe?

Scientists have known about these energetic pulses — called fast radio bursts — for about 13 years and have seen them coming from outside our galaxy, which makes it harder to trace them back to what’s causing them. Making it even harder is that they happen so fast, in a couple of milliseconds.

Then this April, a rare but considerably weaker burst coming from inside our own Milky Way galaxy was spotted by two dissimilar telescopes: one a California doctoral student’s set of handmade antennas, which included actual cake pans, the other a $20 million Canadian observatory.

They tracked that fast radio burst to a weird type of star called a magnetar that’s 32,000 light-years from Earth, according to four studies in Wednesday’s journal Nature.

It was not only the first fast radio burst traced to a source, but the first emanating from our galaxy. Astronomers say there could be other sources for these bursts, but they are now sure about one guilty party: magnetars.

Magnetars are incredibly dense neutron stars, with 1.5 times the mass of our sun squeezed into a space the size of Manhattan. They have enormous magnetic fields that buzz and crackle with energy, and sometimes flares of X-rays and radio waves burst from them, according to McGill University astrophysicist Ziggy Pleunis, a co-author of the Canadian study.

The magnetic field around these magnetars “is so strong any atoms nearby are torn apart and bizarre aspects of fundamental physics can be seen,” said astronomer Casey Law of the California Institute of Technology, who wasn’t part of the research.

There are maybe a dozen or so of these magnetars in our galaxy, apparently because they are so young and part of the star birth process, and the Milky Way is not as flush with star births as other galaxies, said Cornell University Shami Chatterjee, who wasn’t part of either discovery team.

This burst in less than a second contained about the same amount of energy that our sun produces in a month, and still that’s far weaker than the radio bursts detected coming from outside our galaxy, said Caltech radio astronomer Christopher Bochenek. He helped spot the burst with handmade antennas.

These radio bursts aren’t dangerous to us, not even the more powerful ones from outside our galaxy, astronomers said.

The ones that come from outside our galaxy and travel millions or billions of light-years are “tens of thousands to millions of times more powerful than anything we have detected in our galaxy,” said co-author Daniele Michilli, an astrophysicist at McGill and part of the Canadian team.

Scientists think these are so frequent that they may happen more than 1,000 times a day outside our galaxy. But finding them isn’t easy.

“You had to be looking at the right place at the right millisecond,” Cornell’s Chatterjee said. “Unless you were very, very lucky, you’re not going to see one of these.”

Even though this is a frequent occurrence outside the Milky Way, astronomers have no idea how often these bursts happen inside our galaxy.

“We still don’t know how lucky we got,” Bochenek said. “This could be a once-in-five-year thing or there could be a few events to happen each year.”

Bochenek’s antennas cost about $15,000. Each is “the size of a large bucket. It’s a piece of 6-inch metal pipe with two literal cake pans around it,” the doctoral student said. They are crude instruments designed to look at a giant chunk of the sky — about a quarter of it — and see only the brightest of radio flashes.

Bochenek figured he had maybe a 1-in-10 chance of spotting a fast radio burst in a few years. But after one year, he hit pay dirt.

The Canadian observatory in British Columbia is more focused and refined but is aimed at a much smaller chunk of the sky, and it was able to pinpoint the source to the magnetar in the constellation Vulpecula.

Because the bursts are affected by all the material they pass through in space, astronomers might be able to use them to better understand and map the invisible-to-us material between galaxies and “weigh” the universe, said Jason Hessels, chief astronomer for the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, who wasn’t part of the research.

Astronomers have had as many 50 different theories for what causes these fast radio bursts, including aliens, and they emphasize that magnetars may not be the only answer, especially since there seem to be two types of fast radio bursts. Some, like the one spotted in April, happen only once, while others repeat themselves often.

Michilli said his team has traced one outburst that happens every 16 days to a nearby galaxy and is getting close to pinpointing the source.

Some of these young magnetars are only a few decades old, “and that’s what gives them enough energy to produce repeating fast radio bursts,” Cornell’s Chatterjee said.

Tracking even one outburst is a welcome surprise and an important finding, he said.

“No one really believed that we’d get so lucky,” Chatterjee said. “To find one in our own galaxy, it just puts the cherry on top.”

___

Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Today’s Top Stories

All News

Utah homes are recording high levels of radon gas. 
Photo credit: Laura Seitz, Deseret News...
Heather Kelly and Elizabeth Weiler

Utah homes have some of the highest levels of radon gas

New research finds that Utah homes have the 5th highest levels of radon gas when compared to the rest of the nation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that one in 15 homes in the U.S. have dangerous levels of radon gas. Utah is at much higher risk, as the agency found one in […]
12 hours ago
Shoppers wait in line outside a retail warehouse as people rush to prepare for Tropical Storm Ian, ...
Holly Yan and Nouran Salahieh, CNN

Hurricane Ian could be ‘something that we haven’t seen in our lifetime,’ Tampa forecaster says

While Ian is forecast to become a "major hurricane" based on wind speeds, storm surges can be even deadlier than the winds, said Michael Brennan, acting deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
12 hours ago
Image of the semi-truck that broke through the concrete barrier and rolled into the embankment (Pho...
Chandler Holt

Semi driver dies after driving off side of roadway

A semi drove off the right side of the road, breaking through the concrete barrier, on US-6 at milepost 185 in Spanish Fork canyon.
12 hours ago
The White House to ask for less money to fund border wall...
ACACIA CORONADO and GISELA SALOMON Associated Press

Increase in Venezuelan migration is felt across US

Dave and Dujanovic discuss the causes of immigration and are joined by U of U political science professor. Listen live at 10:05 EAGLE PASS, Texas (AP) — It cost Nerio two months and everything he had to get from Venezuela to the U.S., traveling mainly by foot and watching as exhausted fellow migrants were assaulted […]
12 hours ago
Apartments for rent in Sugar House on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)...
Kate Davis, Amie Schaeffer

Utah rental prices continue to soar

The cost of renting has skyrocketed in Utah. The price to rent in the state increased more in the past two years more over the two last years than they did in the decade prior.
12 hours ago
A Bluffdale crash between that involved a semi-truck left one person dead on Monday, Sept. 26.  (St...
Amie Schaeffer

Bluffdale crash involving semi-truck kills one

One person has died in an accident in Bluffdale. The crash involved a semi-truck and happened early Monday morning.
12 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

a worker with a drill in an orange helmet installs a door in the house...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

Home improvement tip: Increase the value of your home by weatherproofing doors

Make sure your home is comfortable before the winter! Seasonal maintenance keeps your home up to date. Read our tips on weatherproofing doors.
Curb Appeal...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

How to have the best of both worlds for your house | Home security and curb appeal

Protect your home and improve its curb appeal with the latest security solutions like beautiful garage doors and increased security systems.
A paper reading IRS, internal revenue service is pictured...
Jordan Wilcox

The best strategies for dealing with IRS tax harassment | You have options!

Learn how to deal with IRS tax harassment. This guide will teach you how to stop IRS phone calls and letters, and how to handle an IRS audit.
spend a day at Bear Lake...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

You’ll love spending the day at Bear Lake | How to spend a day at Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a place that needs to be experienced. Spend a day at Bear Lake.
Prescription opioids can be disposed of during National Prescription Take Back Day...
Know Your Script

Prescription opioid misuse | How to protect your family from the opioid epidemic

Studies have shown that prescription opioid misuse has increased since COVID-19. So what do you need to know about these opioids?
national heart month...
Intermountain Healthcare

National Heart Month: 5 Lifestyle Changes to Make Today to Keep You Heart Healthy

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. One person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease
Flash of luck: Astronomers find cosmic radio burst source