This undated photo provided by Caltech shows a STARE2 station made by radio astronomer Christopher Bochenek at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California. On Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2020, astronomers say they used this system and a Canadian observatory to trace an April 2020 fast cosmic radio burst to our own galaxy and a type of powerful energetic young star called a magnetar. (Caltech via AP)

This undated photo provided by Caltech shows a STARE2 station made by radio astronomer Christopher Bochenek at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California. On Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2020, astronomers say they used this system and a Canadian observatory to trace an April 2020 fast cosmic radio burst to our own galaxy and a type of powerful energetic young star called a magnetar. (Caltech via AP)

Flash of luck: Astronomers find cosmic radio burst source

Tracked that fast radio burst to a weird type of star called a magnetar that’s 32,000 light-years from Earth

A flash of luck helped astronomers solve a cosmic mystery: What causes powerful but fleeting radio bursts that zip and zigzag through the universe?

Scientists have known about these energetic pulses — called fast radio bursts — for about 13 years and have seen them coming from outside our galaxy, which makes it harder to trace them back to what’s causing them. Making it even harder is that they happen so fast, in a couple of milliseconds.

Then this April, a rare but considerably weaker burst coming from inside our own Milky Way galaxy was spotted by two dissimilar telescopes: one a California doctoral student’s set of handmade antenna s, which included actual cake pans, the other a $20 million Canadian observatory.

They tracked that fast radio burst to a weird type of star called a magnetar that’s 32,000 light-years from Earth, according to four studies in Wednesday’s journal Nature.

It was not only the first fast radio burst traced to a source, but the first emanating from our galaxy. Astronomers say there could be other sources for these bursts, but they are now sure about one guilty party: magnetars.

Magnetars are incredibly dense neutron stars, with 1.5 times the mass of our sun squeezed into a space the size of Manhattan. They have enormous magnetic fields that buzz and crackle with energy, and sometimes flares of X-rays and radio waves burst from them, according to McGill University astrophysicist Ziggy Pleunis, a co-author of the Canadian study.

The magnetic field around these magnetars “is so strong any atoms nearby are torn apart and bizarre aspects of fundamental physics can be seen,” said astronomer Casey Law of the California Institute of Technology, who wasn’t part of the research.

There are maybe a dozen or so of these magnetars in our galaxy, apparently because they are so young and part of the star birth process, and the Milky Way is not as flush with star births as other galaxies, said Cornell University Shami Chatterjee, who wasn’t part of either discovery team.

This burst in less than a second contained about the same amount of energy that our sun produces in a month, and still that’s far weaker than the radio bursts detected coming from outside our galaxy, said Caltech radio astronomer Christopher Bochenek. He helped spot the burst with handmade antennas.

These radio bursts aren’t dangerous to us, not even the more powerful ones from outside our galaxy, astronomers said.

The ones that come from outside our galaxy and travel millions or billions of light-years are “tens of thousands to millions of times more powerful than anything we have detected in our galaxy,” said co-author Daniele Michilli, an astrophysicist at McGill and part of the Canadian team.

Scientists think these are so frequent that they may happen more than 1,000 times a day outside our galaxy. But finding them isn’t easy.

“You had to be looking at the right place at the right millisecond,” Cornell’s Chatterjee said. “Unless you were very, very lucky, you’re not going to see one of these.”

Even though this is a frequent occurrence outside the Milky Way, astronomers have no idea how often these bursts happen inside our galaxy.

“We still don’t know how lucky we got,” Bochenek said. “This could be a once-in-five-year thing or there could be a few events to happen each year.”

Bochenek’s antennas cost about $15,000. Each is “the size of a large bucket. It’s a piece of 6-inch metal pipe with two literal cake pans around it,” the doctoral student said. They are crude instruments designed to look at a giant chunk of the sky — about a quarter of it — and see only the brightest of radio flashes.

Bochenek figured he had maybe a 1-in-10 chance of spotting a fast radio burst in a few years. But after one year, he hit pay dirt.

The Canadian observatory in British Columbia is more focused and refined but is aimed at a much smaller chunk of the sky, and it was able to pinpoint the source to the magnetar in the constellation Vulpecula.

Because the bursts are affected by all the material they pass through in space, astronomers might be able to use them to better understand and map the invisible-to-us material between galaxies and “weigh” the universe, said Jason Hessels, chief astronomer for the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, who wasn’t part of the research.

Astronomers have had as many 50 different theories for what causes these fast radio bursts, including aliens, and they emphasize that magnetars may not be the only answer, especially since there seem to be two types of fast radio bursts. Some, like the one spotted in April, happen only once, while others repeat themselves often.

Michilli said his team has traced one outburst that happens every 16 days to a nearby galaxy and is getting close to pinpointing the source.

Some of these young magnetars are only a few decades old, “and that’s what gives them enough energy to produce repeating fast radio bursts,” Cornell’s Chatterjee said.

Tracking even one outburst is a welcome surprise and an important finding, he said.

“No one really believed that we’d get so lucky,” Chatterjee said. “To find one in our own galaxy, it just puts the cherry on top.”

Seth Borenstein, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Science

Just Posted

Fleetwood Park Secondary School’s 2021 commencement ceremonies were held over the course of two days, June 10 and 11. Grads went through a small, distanced ceremony in groups of four, with up to four members of the grad’s household. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Surrey’s 2021 grads find creative ways to celebrate in another year of COVID-19

This year’s Grade 12 students were unable to have any large-scale events

All nine White Rock Renegades softball teams are set to take part in the Canadian Pride and Power Tournament, scheduled for July 1-4. (Aaron Hinks photo)
White Rock Renegades set to host multi-team Pride and Power softball tournament

‘There’s going to be a lot of excitement in the park,’ said Greg Timm

The Lower Mainland Green Team and students from Earl Marriott Secondary remove invasive plants from White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park. (Contributed photo)
Green Team returns to White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park to monitor previous work

Environmental volunteers, South Surrey students remove invasive species

Dooris Raad was last seen in South Surrey’s Ocean Park neighbourhood on June 7. (Surrey RCMP photo)
Doris Anderson’s digital triptych Aberration, which she is marketing as an NFT.
Semiahmoo Peninsula abstract painter dives into NFT market

Works sold as one-of-a-kind digital files

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

The Queen Victoria statue at the B.C. legislature was splattered with what looks like red paint on Friday. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)
Queen Victoria statue at B.C. legislature vandalized Friday

Statue splattered with red paint by old growth forest proponents

Police cars are seen parked outside Vancouver Police Department headquarters on Saturday, January 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Vancouver police officer charged with assault during an arrest in 2019

The service has released no other details about the allegations

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Christian Eriksen in stable condition, Euro 2020 match resumes

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Rescuers free humpback ‘anchored’ down by prawn traps off Vancouver Island

Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Most Read