Astronomers Trace Radio Burst to Extreme Cosmic Neighborhood

Astronomers Trace Radio Burst to Extreme Cosmic Neighborhood

"Here we see a twisting that is so extreme that it is nearly unprecedented for an astronomical source of radio waves", he said.

Nobody knows what causes fast radio bursts - brief, weird radio wave beams that emit more energy in a fraction of a millisecond than the sun does all day.

Now researchers are closing in on their origins. Pulsars keep time like a metronome, but the detected fast radio bursts from 121102 don't appear (yet) to come at regular intervals.

This has been proposed as a possible source of the fast radio bursts.

Their findings are published in the journal Nature.

Two of the most extreme and mysterious objects in the universe might be sitting right next to each other. "We would not want to be there".

However, the mystery of FRBs is far from solved.

A curious property of FRBs confirms their vast distance from us-their radio waves have been "dispersed" by their passage through clouds of electrons that fill the space between stars and galaxies, smeared out in proportion to how far they have journeyed to reach Earth.

The team's data reveal that FRB 121102's bursts are polarized.

A 3D-printed depiction of one of FRB 121102's radio bursts detected with Arecibo shows how bright the burst was as a function of observed radio frequency and time. The team ultimately captured and analyzed 16 bursts. But the bursts are short, ranging from 30 microseconds to 9 milliseconds in duration, indicating the source could be something much smaller, like a neutron star, which is the very small and very dense collapsed core of a large star that's left over when it dies.

To dig further in, researchers will use several next-generation telescopes with several complicated acronyms (CHIME, ASKAP, UTMOST, and APERTIF) to provide a broader coverage area for fast radio bursts. There, they said, the high energy beam is being savagely twisted by a powerful magnetic field amid a dense cloud of hot, ionized gas. The researchers believe that FRB 121102 could be a young neutron star enshrouded by gas and dust from the preceding supernova explosion.

Duncan Lorimer, an astronomer based at West Virginia University, who co-discovered the first FRBs, said the latest observations were very exciting.

The new radio observatories will also be able to make out the finer structures of the bursts, which even at 121102 don't appear to be uniform in structure (which could also be a product of the surrounding environment). "Maybe that extreme environment includes structures that can boost the brightnesses of the bursts like a magnifying lens".

Another oddity: Though FRB 121102 is "prodigiously energetic", as Chatterjee put it, it only emits radiation in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Whatever it is, it's a good thing we're about 3 billion light-years away from it. Such dwarfs are rich in pristine gas scarcely altered since the universe sprang into being during the big bang almost 14 billion years ago-and that gas tends to form especially massive and short-lived stars, which end their lives by exploding with astonishing violence as "superluminous supernovae".

FRB 121102 is a fast radio burst emitter unlike any other discovered.

"Last year's localization was a game-changer in a very direct way", says Jim Cordes, a study co-author and astronomer at Cornell. But there are lots unanswered questions about the basic physics governing neutron stars, which are some of the most exotic objects in the universe.

"Myself and many others would love to know whether this fast radio burst phenomenon has a single or multiple physical origins", Hessels said. A magnetar so young should be spinning extremely fast, perhaps once per millisecond, but will rapidly lose rotational speed as its whirling magnetic field dumps huge amounts of energy into a surrounding shell of expanding plasma left over from the supernova that birthed it. In that more general scenario, the magnetar could periodically pass through debris disks and particle jets surrounding the black hole as it feeds, being bathed in material that is then ejected at high speed by the intense magnetic fields.

FRB 121102 produces prodigious energy that Earth-bound scientists can detect, explained Cordes. Spitler found a mysterious burst that lasted three one-thousandths of a second.

Much remains a mystery about the origins of FRBs, because their brief nature makes it hard to pinpoint where they come from. "Is it in the nature of FRBs that they all originate in this sort of extreme environment-or is this more of a nurture situation, where this one repeats because of its extreme environment, this strong magnetic field and plasma lensing? Both possibilities remain tantalizingly open".

While so few FRBs have been discovered to date, that's set to change thanks to a Canadian telescope.

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