The astronomers discovered a repeating fast radio burst that lasted 1,000 times longer than average bursts.
The researchers hope that by studying the burst they will be able to identify its origin.
Hundreds of fast radio bursts have been detected since the first cosmic flash was discovered in 2007.
Astronomers have discovered a strange and persistent radio signal from a galaxy about a billion light-years away. Studying these flares could provide clues to their mysterious origins and give researchers insight into the far reaches of the cosmos.
Fast radio bursts are intense but brief flashes of radio waves that originate millions or billions of light-years away from Earth. The first of these cosmic flashes, known as a “Lorimer burst,” was discovered in 2007. Since then, hundreds of fast radio bursts have been detected, but their exact astrophysical origins remain a mystery.
Fast radio bursts typically last for milliseconds. But the newly detected signal, dubbed FRB 20191221A, lasts about three seconds, about 1,000 times longer than average, according to the new study, which was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
On December 21, 2019, astronomers monitoring data from the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) detected a signal that caught their attention.
“I inspected the signal with the naked eye and noticed that it was made up of multiple pulses, it looked a bit like an EKG,” Daniele Michilli, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT and co-author of the study who viewed the incoming CHIME data, told Insider.
Upon closer inspection, Michilli and his team found that the signal contained a clear periodic pattern, similar to a heartbeat, repeating every 0.2 seconds. “That surprised us a lot, because there aren’t many sources in the universe that can produce that kind of signal,” Michilli said.
Two examples of predictable and reliable signals exist within our own galaxy, Michilli said, magnetars and radio pulsars. A magnetar is a dense dying star with an incredibly powerful magnetic field. A pulsar is the spinning remnants of an exploded star, emitting narrow beams of radio waves, sweeping across the Earth like a beacon’s beacon. Astronomers use these constantly repeating signals “to study the universe and test our theories,” Michilli said.
Most fast radio bursts fire only once, Michilli said, but rarely, the signal repeats itself and is reliably detected. A repeating signal would allow astronomers to point telescopes at that specific part of the sky and study the burst in greater detail, he said, helping to determine where it’s coming from and what might be causing it.
While the new signal appears to be a single event, with multiple spikes, like a beating heart, Michilli and her team haven’t seen a repeat of the burst, yet.
“We hope to continue monitoring it for additional bursts of the fast radio burst and to discover more of these repetitive bursts in the future,” he said. To that end, CHIME is expanding, through a collaboration with additional telescopes in North America, which will observe the same patch of sky together, to triangulate the locations of the radio bursts and link them to specific galaxies.
“We want to know exactly where they come from and study their local environment,” Michilli said, adding, “And in the future, we hope to see some of them with this new James Webb Space Telescope, to see exactly what they are.” and what surrounds them.
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