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

Machinery could be seen working to clear land behind a pair of houses on Main Street for the future site of the Shuswap and Secwepmc Healing Centre, a medical facility on Friday, April 9. The Sicamous Fire Department has been using the buildings for training exercises ahead of their demolition. (Jim Elliot/Eagle Valley News)
Snapshot: Clearing space

Land is being cleared for a new medical centre on Sicamous’ Main Street.

Winter driving conditions returned to the Coquihalla Highway on April 10. (ICBC image)
Coquihalla motorists warned of fresh snow

Five to 10 cm of snow is expected today for the mountain highway.

B.C's COVID-19 dashboard shows the peaks and valleys of cases prior to the record daily report of 132 on April 9, 2021. (Dashboard image)
Interior Health has record day of COVID-19 cases

132 cases reported Friday, April 9, more deaths in Vernon hospital outbreak

School District 83 trustees are leaning towards an option in the school district’s Long Range Facilities Plan that favours making Salmon Arm Secondary’s Sullivan campus and Jackson campus (pictured) both Grade 9-12 schools. (Google maps image)
Letter: Two high school option for Salmon Arm will create ‘have, have not’ situation

Writer concerned with E5 option, says transparent talk about implications needed

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.[CDC]
More COVID-19 exposures reported at schools in Kelowna

Interior Health added additional schools and dates to their list of exposures

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Sun Peaks is tracking rising COVID-19 cases. (Kamloops This Week Photo)
Sun Peaks sees spike in COVID-19 cases at end of ski season

On April 9, there were 15 positive cases confirmed.

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Penticton Christian School. (Facebook)
COVID-19 exposure at South Okanagan independent school

The exposures are the latest in a quickly growing list in the Interior

Most Read