A mysterious object billions of light years from Earth is firing strong bursts of energy in a pattern similar to a heartbeat.
A team of astronomers, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has captured what are formally known as fast radio bursts (FRB), which are intense radio waves that typically last a few milliseconds.
The newly detected FRB, however, persists for up to three seconds – about 1,000 times longer than average.
The signal, labeled FRB 20191221A, is currently the longest lasting FRB with the clearest periodic pattern detected to date.
While the researchers aren’t sure about the source, they suspect the signal is coming from a radio pulsar or a magnetar, both types of neutron stars — extremely dense, rapidly rotating collapsed cores of giant stars.
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The signal, labeled FRB 20191221A, is currently the longest-lasting FRB with the clearest periodic pattern detected to date.
The first FRB was detected in 2007, triggering a hunt to find the source and, hopefully, uncover secrets about the space between galaxies by studying the signal path.
Daniele Michilli, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, said in a statement: “There aren’t many things in the universe that emit strictly periodic signals.
“Examples we know of in our own galaxy are radio pulsars and magnetars, which rotate and produce a lighthouse-like emission.
“And we think this new signal could be a magnetar or pulsar on steroids.”
The discovery of FRB 20191221A was made by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) telescope (pictured). This FRB persists for up to three seconds – about 1,000 times longer than average
Fast radio bursts – described as “short, mysterious beacons” – have been detected in various distant parts of the universe, as well as in our own galaxy.
Its origins are unknown and its appearance is unpredictable.
The discovery of FRB 20191221A was made by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) telescope.
The CHIME (Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment), located in British Columbia, Canada, has four 328-foot-long U-shaped cylinders, allowing it to detect signals from when the universe was between six and 11 billion years old.
And this telescope has nearly quadrupled the number of fast radio bursts discovered to date.
The pattern of radio bursts from FRB 20191221A was found to have similarities to the emissions from radio pulsars and magnetars in our own galaxy.
Radio pulsars are neutron stars that emit beams of radio waves, appearing to pulsate as the star rotates, while a similar emission is produced by magnetars due to their extreme magnetic fields.
The signal, labeled FRB 20191221A, is currently the longest-lasting FRB with the clearest periodic pattern detected to date (pictured)
The main difference between the new signal and radio emissions from our own pulsars and galactic magnetars is that FRB 20191221A appears to be over a million times brighter.
Michilli said the bright flashes could come from a distant radio pulsar or magnetar that is normally dimmer as it spins and, for some unknown reason, ejected a train of bright bursts, ‘in a rare three-second window that CHIME was fortunately positioned to capture,’ he continued.
“CHIME has now detected many FRBs with different properties,” said Michilli.
“We’ve seen some living inside very turbulent clouds, while others appear to be in clean environments.
‘From the properties of this new signal, we can say that around this source, there is a plasma cloud that must be extremely turbulent.’
Astronomers hope to capture additional bursts from the periodic FRB 20191221A, which could help narrow down the source of the signal and learn more about neutron stars.
“This detection raises the question of what could cause this extreme signal that we’ve never seen before, and how we can use this signal to study the universe,” Michilli said.
“Future telescopes promise to discover thousands of FRBs per month, at which point we may find many more of these periodic signals.”
WHAT IS THE CHIME TELESCOPE?
Image provided by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment collaboration shows the CHIME radio telescope
The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (Chime) is a radio telescope in Canada.
£12.2 million ($16 million) in funding, CHIME is located in the mountains of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley at the NRC’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory near Penticton.
It contains four 100-meter-long (328-foot) U-shaped cylinders, allowing it to detect signals from when the universe was between 6 and 11 billion years old.
With its U-shaped cylinders made of metal mesh, experts likened it to half-pipes used by snowboarders and skateboarders.
CHIME is a stationary matrix with no moving parts. The telescope receives radio signals every day from half the sky as the Earth rotates.
While most radio astronomy is done by rotating a large satellite dish to focus light from different parts of the sky, CHIME stares at the sky.
It focuses incoming signals using a correlator – a powerful digital signaling processor that can handle massive amounts of data at a rate of about 7 terabits per second, equivalent to a few percent of the world’s internet traffic.
“Digital signal processing is what makes CHIME able to reconstruct and “look” in thousands of directions simultaneously,” said Kiyoshi Masui, an assistant professor of physics at MIT.
“That’s what helps us detect FRBs a thousand times more often than a traditional telescope.”
Its unique design, coupled with advanced computing power, will serve as a ‘time machine’ to delve deeply into the history of the universe.
CHIME collects radio waves with wavelengths between 37 and 75 centimeters.
Most of these signals come from the Milky Way, but some began their journey billions of years ago.