Cosmic flashes pinpointed to a surprising location in space (2024)

Astronomers have been surprised by the closest source of mysterious flashes in the sky called fast radio bursts. Precision measurements with radio telescopes reveal that the bursts are made among old stars, and in a way that no one was expecting. The source of the flashes, in nearby spiral galaxy M 81, is the closest of its kind to Earth.

Fast radio bursts are unpredictable, extremely short flashes of light from space. Astronomers have struggled to understand them ever since they were first discovered in 2007. So far, they have only ever been seen by radio telescopes.

Each flash lasts only thousandths of a second. Yet each one sends out as much energy as the Sun gives out in a day. Several hundred flashes go off every day, and they have been seen all over the sky. Most lie at huge distances from Earth, in galaxies billions of light years away.

In two papers published in parallel this week in the journals Nature and Nature Astronomy, an international team of astronomers present observations that take scientists a step closer to solving the mystery -- while also raising new puzzles. The team is led jointly by Franz Kirsten (Chalmers, Sweden, and ASTRON, Netherlands) and Kenzie Nimmo (ASTRON and University of Amsterdam).

The scientists set out to make high-precision measurements of a repeating burst source discovered in January 2020 in the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

"We wanted to look for clues to the bursts' origins. Using many radio telescopes together, we knew we could pinpoint the source's location in the sky with extreme precision. That gives the opportunity to see what the local neighbourhood of a fast radio burst looks like," says Franz Kirsten.

To study the source at the highest possible resolution and sensitivity, the scientists combined measurements from telescopes in the European VLBI Network (EVN). By combining data from 12 dish antennas spread across half the globe, Sweden, Latvia, The Netherlands, Russia, Germany, Poland, Italy and China, they were able to find out exactly where in the sky they were coming from.

The EVN measurements were complemented with data from several other telescopes, among them the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, USA.

Close but surprising location

When they analysed their measurements, the astronomers discovered that the repeated radio flashes were coming from somewhere no one had expected. They traced the bursts to the outskirts of the nearby spiral galaxy Messier 81 (M 81), about 12 million light years away. That makes this the closest ever detection of a source of fast radio bursts.

There was another surprise in store. The location matched exactly with a dense cluster of very old stars, known as a globular cluster.

"It's amazing to find fast radio bursts from a globular cluster. This is a place in space where you only find old stars. Further out in the universe, fast radio bursts have been found in places where stars are much younger. This had to be something else," says Kenzie Nimmo.

Many fast radio bursts have been found surrounded by young, massive stars, much bigger than the Sun. In those locations, star explosions are common and leave behind highly magnetised remnants.Scientists have come to believe that fast radio bursts can be created in objects known as magnetars. Magnetars are the extremely dense remnants of stars that have exploded. And they are the universe's most powerful known magnets.

"We expect magnetars to be shiny and new, and definitely not surrounded by old stars. So if what we're looking at here really is a magnetar, then it can't have been formed from a young star exploding. There has to be another way," says team member Jason Hessels, University of Amsterdam and ASTRON.

The scientists believe that the source of the radio flashes is something that has been predicted, but never seen before: a magnetar that formed when a white dwarf became massive enough to collapse under its own weight.

"Strange things happen in the multi-billion-year life of a tight cluster of stars. Here we think we're seeing a star with an unusual story," explains Franz Kirsten.

Given time, ordinary stars like the Sun grow old and transform into small, dense, bright objects called white dwarfs. Many stars in the cluster live together in binary systems. Of the tens of thousands of stars in the cluster, a few get close enough that one star collects material from the other.

That can lead to a scenario known as "accretion-induced collapse," Kirsten explains.

"If one of the white dwarfs can catch enough extra mass from its companion, it can turn into an even denser star, known as a neutron star. That's a rare occurrence, but in a cluster of ancient stars, it's the simplest way of making fast radio bursts," says team member Mohit Bhardwaj, McGill University, Canada.

Fastest ever

Looking for further clues by zooming into their data, the astronomers found another surprise. Some of the flashes were even shorter than they had expected.

"The flashes flickered in brightness within as little as a few tens of nanoseconds. That tells us that they must be coming from a tiny volume in space, smaller than a soccer pitch and perhaps only tens of metres across," says Kenzie Nimmo.

Similarly lightning-fast signals have been seen from one of the sky's most famous objects, the Crab pulsar. It is a tiny, dense, remnant of a supernova explosion that was seen from Earth in 1054 CE in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull. Both magnetars and pulsars are different kinds of neutron stars: super-dense objects with the mass of the Sun in a volume the size of a city, and with strong magnetic fields.

"Some of the signals we measured are short and extremely powerful, in just the same way as some signals from the Crab pulsar. That suggests that we are indeed seeing a magnetar, but in a place that magnetars haven't been found before," says Kenzie Nimmo.

Future observations of this system and others will help to tell whether the source really is an unusual magnetar, or something else, like an unusual pulsar or a black hole and a dense star in a close orbit.

"These fast radio bursts seem to be giving us new and unexpected insight into how stars live and die. If that's true, they could, like supernovae, have things to tell us about stars and their lives across the whole universe," says Franz Kirsten.

Cosmic flashes pinpointed to a surprising location in space (2024)


Cosmic flashes pinpointed to a surprising location in space? ›

Close but surprising location

What is the mysterious radio burst from space? ›

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have found a rare event in an oddball place. It's called a fast radio burst (FRB), a fleeting blast of energy that can – for a few milliseconds – outshine an entire galaxy. Hundreds of FRBs have been detected over the past few years.

What is the spooky radio signal from space? ›

Frbs are brief pulses of radio. waves that outshine other radio sources in the universe. Scientists believe that these bursts. come from a hypermagnetized neutron stars.

What is the signal from outside the Milky Way? ›

NASA scientists have found a powerful new gamma-ray signal coming from outside our galaxy. They detected the alternative signal while looking for answers about the universe's creation. The discovery has created a whole new cosmic conundrum for the astronomists.

Why are we seeing the past when we look at distant stars and galaxies? ›

light from the nearest star other than our sun takes around 4 years to get here. Light from the most distant things we've found takes billions of years to reach us. We see them as they were how ever many years ago it was, just as we see our sun as it was 8 minutes ago.

What's the biggest mystery in space? ›

By far the largest amount of matter is dark and consists of unknown particles. If that wasn't mysterious enough, the vacuum of empty space is filled with a mysterious dark energy that accelerates the expansion of the Universe.

What is the 8 billion year old signal? ›

Astronomers have detected a mysterious blast of radio waves that have taken 8 billion years to reach Earth. The fast radio burst is one of the most distant and energetic ever observed. Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are intense, millisecond-long bursts of radio waves with unknown origins.

What mysterious fast radio burst traveled 8 billion years to reach Earth? ›

Astronomers revealed on Thursday that this particular FRB was more powerful and came from much farther away than any previously recorded, having travelled eight billion light years from when the universe was less than half its current age. Exactly what causes FRBs has become one of astronomy's great mysteries.

What mysterious radio signal from space is repeating every 16 days? ›

The series of "fast radio bursts" – short-lived pulses of radio waves that come from across the universe – were detected about once an hour for four days and then stopped, only to start up again 12 days later. This cycle repeated every 16.35 days for more than a year, according to a new paper about the research.

What radio signal took 8 billion years to reach Earth but its source is a mystery? ›

Astronomers have recorded a mysterious signal coming from far away in the distant universe that took eight billion years to reach us. According to a paper published in Science journal, the distinctive signal represents 'fast radio bursts' or FRBs, a cosmic phenomenon. FRBs are intense but brief pulses of radio waves.

What is the dark spot in the Milky Way? ›

Close to the star at the foot of the Southern Cross is a black patch in the Milky Way – the stars in that part of the sky are blocked out by a dark nebula called the Coalsack.

What signal is from the center of the galaxy? ›

Mysterious radio waves emanating from the center of the galaxy have astronomers stumped. Four objects have briefly emitted radio signals that don't resemble any known type of star. Scientists think each of the four signals could come from a new type of object unknown to astronomy.

What is the most likely end of the universe? ›

The ultimate fate of an open universe with dark energy is either universal heat death or a "Big Rip" where the acceleration caused by dark energy eventually becomes so strong that it completely overwhelms the effects of the gravitational, electromagnetic and strong binding forces.

How long in the past can we see? ›

We can see light from 13.8 billion years ago, although it is not starlight, because there were no stars then. The farthest light we can see is the cosmic microwave background. The cosmic microwave background is the light left over from the Big Bang, forming at just 380,000 years after our cosmic birth.

Can we see back in time in space? ›

This is how far back we can see. The time it takes for light from objects in space to reach Earth means that when we look at planets, stars and galaxies, we're actually peering back in time.

What is the radio sound coming from space? ›

These detected radio waves often come from almost incomprehensibly distant galaxies, many light-years away. To us, they're like whispers drifting through the wind. That's why astronomers must use behemoth antennas to find them. "Since the dawn of radio astronomy, this is what astronomers do.

What was the radio wave sent into space? ›

The Arecibo message is an interstellar radio message carrying basic information about humanity and Earth that was sent to the globular cluster Messier 13 in 1974. It was meant as a demonstration of human technological achievement, rather than a real attempt to enter into a conversation with extraterrestrials.

Was there a heartbeat in the radio signal from space? ›

A mysterious radio burst with a pattern similar to a heartbeat has been detected in space. Astronomers estimate that the signal came from a galaxy roughly a billion light-years away, but the exact location and cause of the burst is unknown. A study detailing the findings published Wednesday in the journal Nature.


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Jerrold Considine

Last Updated:

Views: 5945

Rating: 4.8 / 5 (78 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Jerrold Considine

Birthday: 1993-11-03

Address: Suite 447 3463 Marybelle Circles, New Marlin, AL 20765

Phone: +5816749283868

Job: Sales Executive

Hobby: Air sports, Sand art, Electronics, LARPing, Baseball, Book restoration, Puzzles

Introduction: My name is Jerrold Considine, I am a combative, cheerful, encouraging, happy, enthusiastic, funny, kind person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.