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Mystery Fast Radio Burst Source Finally Revealed

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  • Mystery Fast Radio Burst Source Finally Revealed

    Mystery Radio Burst Source Finally Revealed: It's Coming From Inside the Milky Way

    Jennifer Leman
    Thu, November 5, 2020, 7:30 PM EST
    From Popular Mechanics
    Since 2007, astronomers have been racing to solve an incredible cosmic mystery: Just what is causing those sudden bursts of radiation—known as fast radio bursts (FRB)—to ricochet across the universe? Over the past decade, scientists have observed hundreds of these pulses, but they've long struggled to pinpoint their origin.

    Now, we may finally have a definitive answer: magnetars.

    This bizarre type of neutron star sounds like something that might leap from the pages of a comic book, but astronomers believe they may be the culprit behind fast radio bursts.

    Neutron stars form after ridiculously massive stars—far bigger than our sun—die. Magnetars take this already absurd process to an extreme. The starry husks generate enormous amounts of energy and have a wildly powerful magnetic field that's about a trillion times stronger than Earth's magnetic field. (Hence the menacing name.)

    This past April, scientists at two separate observatories in North America observed a pulse of high-energy radio waves emanating from a magnetar inside the Milky Way—just 30,000 light-years from Earth. In the days before the scientists observed the FRBs, the magnetar, which is called SGR 1935+2154, had become extremely active by shooting x-ray and gamma rays out across the galaxy.

    The researchers—who are part of the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) and Survey for Transient Astronomical Radio Emission 2 (STARE2) teams—describe their findings in a trio of papers published to the journal Nature. This FRB, notably, was the weakest FRB we've witnessed to date. And one major observatory—China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST)—missed it entirely, so there are still questions left unanswered.

    Still, this finding could mark a monumental leap forward in the study of FRBs for astronomers. Most FRBs are fleeting and appear for just milliseconds. Some occur repeatedly, while scientists have observed others just once. Many of the FRBs we've seen originate in galaxies millions of light-years away, so it's difficult to identify what is causing them. The fact that this FRB event originated in our own cosmic backyard is a big deal.

    Astronomers have discovered many magnetars in our galaxy. Now that one of them has been tied to these mysterious fast radio bursts, it should be easier to justify monitoring the others in closer detail. Magnetars have been on scientists' shortlist for a while, but this new finding could help us unravel the puzzling case once and for all.