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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Multiple people were injured at a Vernon home following an early-morning break-in Saturday, March 6, 2021. (Black Press file photo)
Multiple people left injured following break-and-enter in Vernon

Police believe the early-morning break-in was targeted and not a threat to the general public

Seniors in the Interior Health region can book their COVID-19 vaccinations starting Monday, March 8, 2021 at 7 a.m. (File photo)
Seniors in Interior Heath region can book COVID-19 shots starting Monday

Starting March 8 the vaccination call centre will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily

A Coldstream resident who found an owl struggling on her property in March 2021 is now spreading awareness of about the knock-on effects of rodent poisoning. (Kathy Renaud photo)
Coldstream owl ‘fighting for her life’ after ingesting rat poison

Coldstream resident warns against the use of rodenticide due to risk of secondary poisoning in raptors

Vernon residents can breathe a little easier now that a dust advisory has ended in the area. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
Dust advisory lifted in Vernon

Changing meteorological conditions have improved regional air quality

The City of Vernon is looking for input into its Climate Action Plan. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Vernon voices wanted on climate action plan

Community engagement sought on city plan

The James C Richardson Pipe Band marches in a Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 11, 2019 in Chilliwack. Wednesday, March 10 is International Bagpipe Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of March 7 to 13

International Bagpipe Day, Wash Your Nose Day and Kidney Day are all coming up this week

Isaac Gilbert is running for council in the by-election for Jake Kimberley’s vacated seat. (Submitted)
First candidate for Penticton council by-election makes himself known

Isaac Gilbert is making a second run at council after receiving 19.63 per cent of the vote in 2018

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

Kelowna General Hospital (File photo)
Second COVID-19 outbreak declared at Kelowna General Hospital

One patient and one staff member on Unit have tested positive for the virus.

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Victoria man Brett Andersen is asking for people’s help to secure him one of eight free tickets to the moon. (Screenshot/@brettandersen Instagram)
Victoria man wants your help securing a free ticket to the moon

Japanese billionaire offering eight people a trip to the moon

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Most Read