Astronomers have detected a mysterious radio burst, with a pattern similar to a beating heart, from a far-away galaxy.
In their findings, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature on Wednesday, the researchers noted that the signal – classified as a fast radio burst, or FRB – is the longest-lasting of its kind ever detected. It also displays the clearest periodic pattern for an FRB found so far.
FRBs are intense, very quick flashes of radio waves in space that are visible from billions of light-years away, the researchers note. The exact origins of FRBs are unknown, but hundreds have been detected across the universe since the first FRB was discovered by scientists in 2007, according to a news release from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Imagine a very distant galaxy. And sometimes, some huge explosions happen that emit huge blasts of radio waves,” Daniele Michilli, a postdoctoral scholar at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and one of the study’s authors, told USA TODAY. “We don’t know what these explosions are, (but) they are so powerful that we can see them from across the universe.”
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But the FRB detected in the new study, labeled FRB 20191221A, is particularly unique – for both how long the signal lasts and its pattern. Typical FRBs “last about a millisecond, so much shorter than the blink of an eye,” Michilli noted. FRB 20191221A has a duration of three seconds, about 1,000 times greater than the average.
In addition, the researchers found that the radio wave bursts repeated every 0.2 seconds, similar to the pattern of a “heartbeat.”
Like other FRBs, the source of FRB 20191221A is a mystery – but the researchers noted that its emissions are similar to a radio pulsar or a magnetar, two types of neutron stars. Neutron stars are formed after giant stars die and the cores collapse.
FRB 20191221A was first detected in December 2019 by a radio telescope called Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, Canada.
The team doesn’t know which galaxy FRB 20191221A originates from, but they estimate that it’s about 1 billion light-years away. Still, Michilli said, that’s a “very rough estimate,” and much remains unknown.
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More telescopes are being built across North America – which could help locate FRBs in the future, because they would be operating together, he added. The telescopes also could discover thousands more FRBs each month.
If many more FRBs are found and located, these detections could also lead to further understanding of the cosmos. It’s not possible now, but studying the frequency of and changes in FRBs over time could one day help measure how fast the universe is expanding, for example.
Detections of FRBs like FRB 20191221A, Michilli said, “gives us information about the possible origin of fast radio bursts – and it gives us a new tool that, maybe in the future, we’ll be able to (use for discovering) new information about the universe.”