New insights into mysterious, cosmic 'fast radio bursts'

Scientists have spied about 30 FRBs so far, but FRB 121102 is the only signal source that is known to repeat. Their narrow structure and brief duration makes them extremely hard to detect. This causes the cosmic blasts to "shout and twist", which will help the scientists determine the source.

It is precisely the repetition that allowed astronomers to study the phenomenon. "And this is such a tantalising mystery and as time goes on we're getting more clues".

"More broadly, fast radio bursts probe the extremes of the universe, which are important for understanding because extreme astronomical sources have a large role in shaping the way the universe looks", Hessels said. "The radio flashes are very weak, so we need the world's largest radio telescopes to detect them", Hessels said. Since then, dozens of FRBs have been discovered. Spitler found a mysterious burst that lasted three one-thousandths of a second. Because it seems to sit in a star-forming region of its host galaxy, the scientists think FRB 121102 is linked to stellar birth or death.

Their patience paid off on Christmas Day, 2016. As Hessels explained, the stronger the field, the stronger the twisting of the waves.

When the radio waves pass through the magnetic field, they are twisted in a way known as Faraday rotation.

"Really the only [similar] environments that we've seen are in the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, near the galactic centre black hole and also other galactic centres", Scholz, who was a co-author of the study published in Nature this week, told CBC News. "This provides support to the models that the radio bursts are produced by a neutron star".

An global collaboration of scientists using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the William E. Gordon Telescope in Puerto Rico have confirmed that, the source of the bursts is embedded in an "extreme environment", which is among the most highly magnetised regions of space ever observed.

Another oddity: Though FRB 121102 is "prodigiously energetic", as Chatterjee put it, it only emits radiation in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum. "It's like fresh powder snow on a ski slope", said Chatterjee.

Boffins at Breakthrough Listen, a scientific research centre dedicated to finding intelligent life in the universe, confirmed it picked up the odd signals this week.

The 100-meter Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia is shown amid a starry night.

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And still, the astronomers have no idea what is actually producing these flares.

Though they're not completely understood, it's believed FRBs are caused by rapidly spinning neutron stars, small dense stars left over from supernovas.

Neutron stars are compact enough to produce the short, focused signal that characterizes an FRB, and sufficiently matter-rich to generate something so powerful.

Scientists now hope to do more work both to explore the bursts themselves and try and understand how such a star could be throwing the shot of energy all the way through the universe so that it can reach us.

"We are proceeding to screen how the properties of the blasts change with time", Hessels said.

Meanwhile, astronomers are eager to detect additional repeating bursts. "We found something that is clearly in an extreme place and the extreme location may create a phenomenon that is one of the biggest astrophysical mysteries of recent times". Do all FRBs repeat? Perhaps the FRB 121102 is in the same environment in its galaxy, "says lead investigator Daniel Micile of ASTRON".

In studying these emissions, the researchers focused on a feature of radio waves known as polarization.

"Our partners in the Breakthrough Listen project were able to use the Green Bank Telescope and a fantastic new instrument that they built to observe this source over the widest range of radio frequencies to-date, confirming what had been seen at Arecibo Observatory".

As FRBs traverse the dark spaces between galaxies, they interact with the diffuse material in those regions and carry a record of that interaction down to Earth. "I kept thinking, 'No way, that can't be right, '" said Victoria Kaspi, from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

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