May 3rd 2018

Astronomers Closer to Solving the Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts

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Scientists have received mysterious signals from space for the last decade. Are these perplexing signals really E.T. phoning home? Or a scrambled message from a galaxy far, far away? Dubbed “fast radio bursts,” the origin of this phenomenon has remained a mystery — until now.

What Are Fast Radio Bursts?

The latest astronomy research has found the origin of a fast radio burst in a dwarf galaxy some 3 billion light-years away, according to Astronomy. The source of the radio waves, once thought to be extraterrestrial contact, was hard to pin down because the signals only lasted for a fraction of a second.

Since FRBs were first discovered in 2007, astronomers have struggled to understand the science behind the phenomenon. Are FRBs a sign of alien life? Residual signals from a long-ago civilization traversing the vast blackness of space? Or perhaps signs of catastrophic cosmological upheaval?

Finding Clues to Distant Mysteries

The mystery began to unravel when an international group of researchers discovered FRB 121102. Unlike any of the previously discovered FRBs, this radio wave periodically repeated, which allowed scientists to home in on the source, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Thingiverse details how to print a 3-D copy of the radio burst that visually depicts the peaks and dips of the transmission.

In 2012, Arecibo Observatory’s radio telescope was the first to take note of FRB 121102. Then, using the Very Large Array — 27 movable radio dish antennas located in New Mexico — researchers captured a series of nine radio bursts over the next six months. The 8.19-meter Gemini North Telescope, located in Hawaii, confirmed the source of the radio bursts was a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years away, Popular Mechanics reported.

Researchers presented their findings in Nature and at the 231st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, delivering an unprecedented level of detail on the elusive FRB, captured at the Arecibo Observatory.

The current theory is that the source of FRB 121102 is a young neutron star — the leftover of a giant star that exploded in a supernova. The neutron star could be engulfed in gas and debris from the supernova. Other dwarf galaxies similar to FRB 121102’s have been found to be home to violent astronomical events, such as “‘superluminous supernovae and long gamma-ray bursts,'” according to interviews with the research team published in Popular Mechanics. The FRB’s don’t appear to be pulsars, or rotating neutron stars that emit radio waves on a predictable interval.

Searching for More Answers

Future research will build on the fact that nearly all of the light from FRB 121102 is polarized (or oriented in the same direction), unlike most other objects that emit unpolarized light in random directions. Emitting polarized light requires the presence of a strong magnetic field, such those given off by massive black holes. Another source could be a magnetar, a type of neutron star formed when a large star consumes all its fuel and collapses in on itself, according to Space.com.

Is it safe to rule out extraterrestrial contact? At this point, it is unclear if FRB 121102 is unique, or if there are other repeating radio sources to be discovered. Astronomy reports that 10,000 FRBs occur every day, so we may have an answer soon.

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