Thursday, 24 January, 2019

Scientists discover mysterious repeating radio signal from deep space

An artist's conception of a type of neutron star called a magnetar An artist's conception of a type of neutron star called
Cary Marshall | 11 January, 2019, 19:30

The signal is a fast radio burst (FRB), one of only 60 of such mysterious blips ever recorded in the past 13 years, and its repetition sheds some light on the tantalizingly mysterious origins of these millisecond-long, intense bursts.

Rapid bursts themselves are not rare in space.

Using a series of four semicircular dishes, the telescope stays pointed consistently in the same direction, waiting to pick up signals.

"Knowing that there is another suggests that there could be more out there", said Ingrid Stairs, an astrophysicist from the University of British Columbia (UBC). Harvard University Professor Abraham Loeb previous year said FRBs could originate from planet-sized transmitters that are used to propel giant spaceships by bouncing radio waves off their huge reflective sheets.

One member of the team, Dr Cherry Ng, says the latest FRBs could be coming from "some sort of dense clump like a supernova [exploding star] remnant".

When the first fast radio burst was detected, in 2007, many scientists thought it had to be a result of some telescopic mix-up. The discovery is significant because it's only the second time ever a repeating signal has been observed by scientists. Some scientists had anxious that the range of frequencies it can pick up would be too low for it to receive the FRBs - but it found far more than expected, and scientists expect it to identify even more. A total of 13 fast radio bursts were observed, but six of them were of particular interest: they all came from the same location.

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Significantly, the 2012 and 2018 "repeaters" have strikingly similar properties. "It could be colliding black holes but you don't expect black holes to collide and then an hour later collide again, and then after that to collide again, right?"

As for the new repeater, it's called FRB 180814.J0422+73.

Unlike typical FRBs that come and go, the discovery of a repeating FRB is vital to increasing our understanding of them, as we are able to train our radio telescopes towards them to study them further. They don't know whether the bursts are like flashbulbs, lighting up the sky in every direction, or focused beams, which would require less energy but must be more frequent for Earth to see so many of them.

A Canadian research team announced the cosmic phenomena's discovery in the journal Nature on Wednesday. The majority of previously detected FRBs were found at frequencies near 1400 MHz. "Instead it uses digital signal processing to "point" the telescope and reconstruct where the radio waves are coming from", says Masui.

The low frequency of this new detection could mean that the source of the bursts differ. That tells us something about the environments and the sources. FRBs last for just a few milliseconds, and their unpredictable displays make observations notoriously hard. "There aren't so many qualitative mysteries in astrophysics", Smith said. "We would also like to study the properties of whole populations of FRBs and try to see if there are different sources that give rise to repeaters and non-repeaters".

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