Tag Archives: fast radio bursts

Astronomers identify for the first time the source of a fast radio burst

For the first time astronomers have pinned down the location of a fast radio burst (FRBs), short bursts lasting only seconds that were only discovered about a decade ago.

A dim dwarf galaxy 2.5 billion light years from Earth is sending out the mysterious millisecond-long blasts of radio waves, researchers report Wednesday in Nature and Astrophysical Journal Letters. The bursts traverse vast expanses of time and intergalactic space before reaching our planet. “This really is the first ironclad association of a fast radio burst with another astronomical source, so it’s a pretty huge result,” said Duncan Lorimer, an astronomer at West Virginia University who reported the first detection of a fast radio burst (FRB) in 2007.

The uncertainty of science: Only 18 FRBs have been identified since they were first discovered. Until now, it was unclear whether they occurred in our galaxy or beyond, though it was suspected they were coming from other galaxies. This discovery proves that. What remains unknown is what causes the burst, which signals an energy pulse equivalent to that of 500 million suns.

“I am not exaggerating when I say there are more models for what FRBs could be than there are FRBs,” said Cornell astronomer Shami Chatterjee, the lead author of the new Nature paper. Many scientists think the bursts are emitted by distant neutron stars, the super-dense embers of exploded suns. But some believe they must originate in our own galaxy. Still more suggest that FRBs could be caused by cataclysms like a supernova or a collision of two stars. This last theory was compelling because most FRB detections were one-off events — astronomers never spotted more than one flare from a single source.

Today’s announcement was made possible by the fact that the burst itself is repeating. In fact, it is the only FRB so far known to do so, which also means that what they learn about it might not be applicable to the other bursts.

Scientists puzzle over possible connection between a fast radio burst and a gamma ray burst

The uncertainty of science: In trying to explain the relatively new mystery of fast radio bursts (FRB), of which only about 20 have been detected and of which very little is known, scientists are intrigued by a gamma ray burst (GRB) that apparently occurred at the same time and place of one FRB.

Seeing the FRB event in a different wavelength would normally help astronomers better understand the FRB The problem is that this particular GRB only makes the mystery of FRBs more baffling.

One puzzle is that the two signals portray different pictures of the underlying source, which seems to be as much as 10 billion light years (3.2 gigaparsecs) away. Whereas the radio burst lasted just a few milliseconds, the γ-ray signal lasted between two and six minutes, and it released much more energy in total than the radio burst. “We’ve pumped up the energy budget more than a billion times,” says study co-author Derek Fox, an astrophysicist at Penn State.

This has big implications for the FRB’s origin. One leading theory suggests that FRBs are flares from distant magnetars — neutron stars with enormous magnetic fields that could generate short, energetic blasts of energy, and do so repeatedly, as at least one FRB is known to do. Although magnetars are thought to produce γ-rays, they would not emit such high energy and over such a long time, says Fox. “This is a severe challenge for magnetar models,” he says.

A developing new astronomical mystery

Radio astronomers in Australia have recently detected a number of new mysterious radio bursts, dubbed fast radio bursts because of their nature, coming from outside our galaxy whose cause presently has no clear explanation.

An unprecedented double burst recently showed up along with four more of these flashes, researchers report online November 25 at arXiv.org.

Fast radio bursts, first detected in 2007, are bright blasts of radio energy that last for just a few milliseconds and are never seen again. Until now, astronomers had cataloged nine bursts that appeared to originate well outside the Milky Way. Yet, follow-up searches with nonradio telescopes for anything that might be pulsing or exploding keep coming up empty.

This mystery is similar to that of gamma ray bursts (GRBs), which were first discovered in the 1960s. About once a day there would be a short burst of gamma ray energy coming from scattered random directions in the sky, but no other radiation in any other wavelength. For decades astronomers didn’t know if the GRBs were coming from just outside our atmosphere or from billions of light years away. Finally, in the 1990s they pinned their location to the deaths of stars in distant other galaxies. As noted by one scientist at a conference, “GRBs signal the daily formation of a new black hole.”

Fast radio bursts are more intriguing. Because of their wavelengths and random locations on the sky, astronomers seem confident that they are occurring outside the Milky Way. However, in the eight years since their discovery only a handful have been detected, making it extremely difficult to study them. Nonetheless, they are significant because they signal some cataclysmic event far away, likely the death of a star in a way not yet understood or predicted. Finding out what that event is will produce important information about the evolution of our universe.

It just might take decades for this new mystery to be solved. Stay tuned!