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Unusual radio signal detected by astronomers billions of light-years away

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Astronomers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and universities in Canada and the US say they have detected a radio signal from a distant galaxy that blinks periodically.

In a study published in the journal Nature, authored by members of the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) and the FRB Collaboration, scientists said a fast radio burst (FRB) occurred several billion light-years from Earth.

CHIME is an interferometric radio telescope at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, Canada. It is designed to detect radio waves emitted by hydrogen in the earliest stages of the universe and has detected hundreds of FRBs.

FRBs are millisecond bursts of radio waves that are visible billions of light years away. The first FRB was discovered 15 years ago; hundreds of such radio flares have been detected, although most observed FRBs were single.

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A star formed from compressed neutrons A star formed from compressed neutrons is thought to be the remnant of a supernova explosion.
(Photo: QAI Publishing/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

What exactly is the source of the FRB, labeled FRB 20191221A, remains a mystery.

Astronomers speculate that the repeating signal could come from either a magnetar or a radio pulsar — ​​types of neutron stars — “on steroids.” Neutron stars are dense rotating collapsed cores of giant stars.

Most notable, however, is the duration of FRB 20191221A.

The radio signal that was picked up in December 2019 lasts up to three seconds, which is about 1,000 times longer than the average FRB.

“It was unusual,” recalls Daniele Michilli, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. Kavli at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Not only was it very long, about three seconds, but there were intermittent peaks that were amazingly accurate, radiating every fraction of a second—boom, boom, boom—like a heartbeat. This is the first time the signal itself is periodic. .”

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It is currently the longest running FRB with the clearest periodic pattern, and the team found bursts of radio waves that repeat every 0.2 seconds in a clear pattern.

“Long (approx. [3-second]) the duration and nine or more components forming the pulse profile make this source an outlier in the FRB constellation. Such a short periodicity is a convincing proof of the origin of the event from a neutron star. Moreover, our detection supports radiation originating from the neutron star’s magnetosphere, rather than from regions of radiation further from the star, as some models predict,” the group wrote.

In addition, FRB 20191221A is more than a million times brighter than the radio emission from our own galactic pulsars and magnetars.

Composite image of the space cliffs in the Carina Nebula, created using data from the NIRCam and MIRI instruments of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, a revolutionary vehicle designed to observe space at the dawn of the universe and released on July 12, 2022.

Composite image of the space cliffs in the Carina Nebula, created using data from the NIRCam and MIRI instruments of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a revolutionary vehicle designed to observe space at the dawn of the universe and released on July 12, 2022.
(NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Group/Handout via REUTERS)

“CHIME has found many FRBs with different properties,” said Michilli. “We saw that some of them live inside very turbulent clouds, 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 violent.

The team is aiming to detect more signals from this source, which MIT says can be used as an “astrophysical clock” – perhaps even to measure the rate at which the universe is expanding.

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Michilli said that future telescopes promise to detect thousands of FRBs per month, which could lead to the detection of “much more of these periodic signals.”

The announcement follows the release of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, which looks back billions of years.

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