More Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts Detected, With Possible Answer in Sight

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There are uncountable mysteries in the universe, some of which may require the work of future generations to solve. Others we might be able to unravel in the not-too-distant future. For example, scientists are zeroing in on fast radio bursts, or FRBs. These anomalous pulses of energy were discovered in 2007, and a new data set covering hundreds of FRBs is being made available. This could be the advancement that helps us understand FRBs once and for all. 

The first FRB was detected on Earth in 2001, but no one knew about it until the data was analyzed in 2007. FRBs are so intense they can outshine entire galaxies but only for a few milliseconds before the burst ends. For a long time, astronomers believed FRBs did not repeat, making it difficult to catch one in the act. There have been tantalizing clues that many FRBs repeat, making the phenomenon easier to study. Thanks to the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), we have the data to confirm that. 

Before CHIME, there were about 100 known Fast Radio Bursts. The data set from CHIME’s first year of operation (2018-2019) will be presented at the American Astronomical Society Meeting. It features an incredible 535 new FRBs, and they fall into two distinct categories: one-offs and repeaters. 

The CHIME team identified 18 FRB sources that repeat. These pulses were longer and more powerful than non-repeaters. That strongly suggests that repeating and non-repeating bursts arise from different astrophysical mechanisms. With additional observations and analysis of the CHIME data, astronomers believe it will be possible to nail down the origins of FRBs. 

The first repeating FRB ever discovered, located in a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years away.

Interestingly, CHIME’s catalog of FRBs is evenly distributed across the entire sky. The team has calculated that FRBs occur at a rate of roughly 800 per day from our perspective, but they’re hard to see. While FRBs are blinding at their source, they’re about 1,000 times weaker than a cell phone signal once they reach us. 

With a bit more study, we might finally nail down the origin of FRBs. The current leading suspect for at least some bursts is a type of neutron star known as a magnetar. These objects have magnetic fields many orders of magnitude more powerful than Earth’s, and it’s possibly the movement of magnetic materials inside the star. Time will tell if magnetars are the culprit.

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