Study: Mysterious Bursts From Space Occur Every Second

By Alison Klesman | September 21, 2017 1:07 pm

The Parkes radio telescope “heard” the first fast radio burst in 2001. Could bursts actually be going off every second? (Credit: CSIRO)

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are one of the hottest topics in astronomy right now. These short but extremely powerful bursts last only milliseconds, but release tremendous amounts of energy during that minute period of time. Since publication of their initial discovery in 2007 (the burst itself occurred in 2001), just over 25 of these sources have been identified, with only one repeater. But now, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomers have estimated that despite only the handful of FRBs in our current records, such events could be occurring as often as once per second.

Anastasia Fialkov and Avi Loeb published their findings September 10 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The title says it all: “A Fast Radio Burst Occurs Every Second throughout the Observable Universe.” Their work is based on observations of the single repeating fast radio burst FRB 121102, which has been traced back to a galaxy 3 billion light-years away. Because 121102 repeats, astronomers have been able to obtain information about it in greater detail than other events. And if that FRB is actually exhibiting normal behavior for these sources, then Fialkov and Loeb estimate that “in the time it takes you to drink a cup of coffee, hundreds of FRBs may have gone off somewhere in the Universe,” according to Loeb in a press release.

What does this really mean? “If we can study even a fraction of those well enough, we should be able to unravel their origin,” he said. That origin is still unknown, though most astronomers believe FRBs are associated with magnetars, a class of neutron star with extremely strong magnetic fields. Young magnetars may have the strongest fields and spin the fastest, releasing energy erratically that we see as an FRB.

Although no other FRBs have been caught repeating, it doesn’t mean they aren’t — simply that we haven’t spotted them doing it. Despite the fact that FRB 121102 has repeated several times, there is no discernible pattern or period. Thus, it could in fact represent normal FRB behavior, or FRB behavior at a certain point in the source’s life cycle.

Furthermore, the authors emphasized that FRBs don’t need to be understood to serve as valuable tools for learning more about the universe around us. Because FRBs are so strong, they can travel vast distances to reveal details about the distant — young — universe. Their signals carry relics of the materials (including matter, antimatter, and dark matter) they encounter on the way to Earth, which could help us better resolve the structure of the cosmos. The most distant FRBs could even help astronomers determine more accurately when a period in cosmic history called “reionization” occurred, some hundred million to one billion years after the Big Bang.

Prior to reionization, the universe was filled with neutral hydrogen. As the first stars formed, they emitted ultraviolet photons that spread through the universe, ionizing the hydrogen and “clearing the fog” it created. FRBs could be part of the key to unlocking exactly when and how this occurred, if their signals can be detected from places and times when this process was taking place.

“FRBs are like incredibly powerful flashlights that we think can penetrate this fog and be seen over vast distances,” explained Fialkov. “This could allow us to study the ‘dawn’ of the universe in a new way.”

And with potentially tens or hundreds of those FRBs going off every minute, the number we can study skyrockets, helping astronomers paint an ever-clearer picture of our universe and its history.

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  • Erik Bosma

    At first the author states, “fast radio burst FRB 121102, which has been traced back to a galaxy 3 billion light-years away”. Then at the end of the paragraph she says, “in the time it takes you to drink a cup of coffee, hundreds of FRBs may have gone off somewhere in the Universe”. I know that I’m nit-picking but it doesn’t take me three billion years to drink a cup of coffee.

    • Necromancer

      I think it went over your head sir.

      • Erik Bosma

        I think what I said went over both of your pretty little heads.

        • Necromancer

          I’m not pretty =) but $20 IS $20. <3

    • JWrenn

      In our universe FRBs are happening often. Our universe is very big. Most of the radio signals won’t get to us for a long time because they are far away. We tracked one that happened in a place that would take us 3 billion years to get to traveling at the speed of light. It happened about 3 billion years ago. Make sense?

    • Charles Barnard

      It only says they went off–not that we can hear them.
      There’s a minimum of ~13+billion light years in all directions. One traced to 3 billion lights is repeating. Hundreds may be a low estimate (especially since scientists tend to be conservative about such predictions. But that hundreds per 10 minutes (cup of coffee) has nothing to do with how far away they are…unless you are purposely misunderstanding the difference between light years and years to make a “joke…”

      • Erik Bosma

        I’m having a cup of coffee ‘now’ – the 100’s of FRB’s went off ‘then’ as in 3 billion years ago or more. She is sayiing, “in the time it takes you to drink a cup of coffee, hundreds of FRBs may have gone off somewhere in the Universe”. If they are going off in the time it takes us to drink a cup of coffee we would never know about it for another several billion years. But we’re pretty certain they are a relic of the early universe so in the time it takes me to drink a cup of coffee we may be observing the light from several FRB’s arriving at Earth or they are somewhere in space on the way to Earth but there would be no way of knowing if FRB’s are going off while we drink a cup of coffee unless it’s a special Starbucks blend that takes 3 billion years to drink. Perhaps an “extra, extra tall”?

        • dickG

          “. . . unless it’s a special Starbucks blend that takes 3 billion years to drink. Perhaps an “extra, extra tall”?”
          I say that the problem is this:
          We’re drinking our coffee to fast!
          Drink it more slowly and the problem is solved.

    • Janardhan

      Taking into consideration the great distances, coupled with the fact that the technology for detecting FRB’s is not even a century old.

  • okiejoe

    FRBs must be a phenomenon of the early universe since if they were still occurring we would have seen them nearby long before now. They are apparently so powerful that if one went off within our own galaxy it would stand out like searchlight.

  • John Thompson

    The most interesting thing to me was the one that repeats, but not a a fixed interval.
    Neutron stars are known for doing things like sending out radio bursts, but typically they are regular intervals as they rotate (somewhat like the way a lighthouse light rotates).
    I’m wondering if a neutron star is orbiting something else so that it gets blocked some of the time, perhaps in a wobbly orbit?

  • Grethania Amiya

    Realy that??

  • Vijay Jegakumar

    is it the radio signal that they use to communicate from planets to space because if it is that is what we have to be able to hear and speak. What would the universe be like if seen in ultraviolet and not visible light?


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