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Mysterious fast radio burst in space has the character of a heartbeat

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A mysterious radio burst with a heartbeat-like character has been discovered in space.

Astronomers estimate that the signal came from a galaxy about a billion light-years away, but the exact location and cause of the outburst is unknown. A study detailing the results was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are intense millisecond bursts of radio waves of unknown origin. The first FRB was discovered in 2007, and since then hundreds of such fast cosmic flares have been detected, coming from various distant points throughout the universe.

Many FRBs emit ultra-bright radio waves lasting no more than a few milliseconds before disappearing completely, and about 10% of these are known to be repetitive and patterned.

Fast radio bursts are so fast and unexpected that they are difficult to observe.

One resource used to detect them is a radio telescope called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, Canada.

This telescope, in operation since 2018, constantly monitors the sky and, in addition to fast radio bursts, is sensitive to radio waves emitted by distant hydrogen in the universe.

Astronomers using CHIME noticed something on December 21, 2019 that immediately caught their attention: a fast radio burst that was “unusual in many ways,” according to Daniele Michilli, a PhD researcher. at the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Research. Kavli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The signal, named FRB 20191221A, lasted up to three seconds, about 1,000 times longer than typical fast radio bursts.

Michilli was monitoring data coming from CHIME when the explosion occurred. This is the longest fast radio burst to date.

“It was unusual,” Michilli said. “Not only was it very long, about three seconds, but there were intermittent spikes that were amazingly accurate, emitting every fraction of a second — boom, boom, boom — like a heartbeat. This is the first time the signal itself is periodic.”

Although FRB 20191221A has not yet recurred, “the signal is formed by a sequence of successive peaks that we found to be separated by about 0.2 seconds,” he said in an email.

The research team doesn’t know the exact galaxy the burst originated from, and even a billion light-year distance estimate is “highly uncertain,” Michilli said. While CHIME is designed to find bursts of radio waves, it is not as good at determining their origins.

However, CHIME is being upgraded as part of a project in which additional telescopes currently under construction will conduct joint observations and be able to triangulate radio bursts to specific galaxies, he said.

But the signal does contain clues about where it came from and what might have caused it.

“CHIME has found many FRBs with different properties,” Michilli said. “We have seen that some of them live inside clouds, which are very turbulent, while others look like they are in a clean environment. Judging by the properties of this new signal, we can say that there is a plasma cloud around this source, which should be extremely turbulent.”

When the researchers analyzed FRB 20191221A, the signal was similar to the emissions emitted by two different types of neutron stars, or the dense remnants of a giant star’s death called radio pulsars and magnetars.

Magnetars are neutron stars with incredibly powerful magnetic fields, and radio pulsars emit radio waves that pulsate as the neutron star rotates. Both stellar objects create a signal similar to the flickering beam of a beacon.

The fast radio burst appears to be more than a million times brighter than these emissions. “We think this new signal could be a magnetar or a pulsar on steroids,” Michilli said.

The research team will continue to use CHIME to monitor the sky for new signals from this radio burst, as well as others with a similar periodic signal. The frequency of radio waves and how they change could help astronomers learn more about the expansion rate of the universe.

“This discovery raises the question of what could have caused this extreme signal that we have never seen before, and how we can use this signal to study the universe,” Michilli said. “Telescopes of the future promise to detect thousands of FRBs per month, at which point we may be able to detect many more of these periodic signals.”

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