The Extreme Origins of a Fast Radio Burst

By Bill Andrews | January 10, 2018 1:00 pm


Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are one of the few truly mysterious phenomena in the universe. Astronomers first noticed the milliseconds-long intense pulses of radio waves in 2006, and we’ve slowly but steadily been learning more about the extragalactic signals ever since.

We still don’t really know exactly what they are, but thanks to a study published Wednesday in Nature (in fact it’s the cover story), we’re finally starting to understand these strange signals.

Do the Twist

Now, a caveat: This finding only concerns one type of FRB, and really just one specific example. The source, known as FRB121102, is the only known repeating FRB, and just last year astronomers pinpointed its location to a dwarf galaxy about 3 billion light-years away. This distance actually underscores how powerful the bursts have to be, since they have to cover such a huge distance to get to us — just a single millisecond of energy in one of these bursts is equivalent to all the energy the sun releases in a day.

The new research, based on observations from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and confirmed by the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, analyzed the polarization of FRB 121102’s radio waves, more or less looking at how the radio waves lined up. The international team of astronomers saw that the FRB signals had been “twisted” significantly thanks to an effect called “Faraday rotation.” Basically, the radio waves must have passed through an area with an exceptionally strong magnetic field to account for the amount of twisting they saw.

The only regions we know of that could produce such a strong twist are the most extreme, nearby a massive black hole. It’s also possible that a highly magnetized nebula (a loose cloud of gas and dust) could produce the effect, or even a supernova remnant, the leftovers of an exploded star. The team further speculates that, based on the data they collected, FRB 121102 could be a neutron star, based in one of these punishing environments.

Not So Fast

Of course, that’s not to say we have all the answers. We still don’t know what causes the pulses themselves, assuming the risk-loving neutron star assessment is even right in the first place. And, back to that caveat, does this explain all FRBs, or just the repeating kind — of which the only known example is FRB 121102?

Luckily, we’re likely to get much more data throughout this year. New telescopes coming online should detect multiple FRBs every day, hopefully shedding more light on the mysterious emissions. With any luck, we’ll have answered many of these questions, and surely found many new ones, by this time next year.

But it’s amazing that, only about 12 years after discovering FRBs in the first place, we’ve been able to learn so much about them. The more we gaze into the stars, the more we realize how little we know about them.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
  • OWilson

    “one of the few truly mysterious phenomena in the universe”


    • GlobalThinkTank

      It is far from anything that fearful that keeps me up at night; imagine an impulse frequency from a distant-far off place that produces a similar mass-hallucinogenic state that ‘the God Helmet’ produces? I have to argue that there are phenomena in our Earth and in space that does this at times… how often, I don’t know.

      There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
      Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. – Shakespear ‘Hamlet to Horatio’

      • OWilson

        They don’t even know what 95% of the universe is made from, much less where it all came from!

        Then there’s me and you! :)

  • TLongmire

    “just a single millisecond of energy in one of these bursts is equivalent to all the energy the sun releases in a day.” Has to be something similar to static electricity between dark matter and energy.

  • Mike Richardson

    Maybe the non-repeating variety are like gamma ray bursts, which leading theories suggest may be due to colliding neutron stars, or polar jets created when very massive stars collapse into black holes. Really mind-blowing energetic events, regardless of their cause, and for our sakes, best viewed from afar!

    • GlobalThinkTank

      We’re just sitting ducks in a tiny pond surrounded by open season hunters… if it isn’t the comets and asteroids, its the X-rays and Gamma Rays, or any number of other highly focused energy that tilts our way that will do us all in… we need a bigger boat.

      • Mike Richardson

        We’re in a pretty big pond, to continue that analogy, so these things are potential threats, but not probable on the scale of a human lifetime (particularly a head-on strike by a gamma ray bursts from our region of the galacy). But a bigger boat (or more boats, to be precise) would up our odds of survival as a species.

        • GlobalThinkTank

          I have to believe we are more due for an sizable, earth-shattering ‘event’ within our lifetime than most believe or are prepared for. To be honest, it is unlikely that Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ technology will be suitable for protecting our species entirely; in fact, it may actually exacerbate it more dangerously. Solar flares and X-Ray & Gamma Ray bursts are not what keep me up at night… it is the NEO’s and other undetected ‘Chelyabinsk size’ Comets and Asteroids that keeps up at night – Chelyabinsk was just the tip of the iceberg; had it been over the sweet spot of Los Angeles or New York – all things being equal – we would have lost lives; lots of them. I am afraid the Chelyabinsk meteor was just a tiny sleeper in comparison to other rogue objects.

          check out: New NASA map shows Earth bombarded by asteroids

  • StanChaz

    Not to worry.
    It’s obviously aliens bombarding us with multiple versions of “We come to serve mankind”.
    Bon a petit guys!

    • Mike Richardson

      I loved that episode of the Twilight Zone.

      • okiejoe

        It goes back much farther than that. Damon Knight wrote the short story in 1950 and it was on radio(Dimension X, I believe) soon after.


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