Radio Bursts From Far Away Galaxy Have Astronomers Stumped

By Danny C. | DCPeriodical | 01/11/20 |

A mysterious phenomenon where bursts of radio energy explode across the night sky has been picked up by astronomers’ telescopes and traced back to its place of origin — a medium-sized spiral galaxy, similar to our Milky Way, 500 million light-years away.

These “pinpricks of radio energy” are known as fast radio bursts (FRBs) to scientists, who have only been aware of them since 2007 and still don’t know what produces them.

The problem lies in the fact that they only last a few thousandths of a second, and while one FRB produces nearly as much energy as our sun does in a century, that’s all astronomers were ever picking up — one single burst here and one single burst there, or as Scientific American put it, one-off events.

In 2016 this changed when a newly discovered FRB kept repeating its quick pulsing radio tune in random bursts. Because the bursts were repeating, scientists were able to trace back the signals to where they were originating from; a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years away that had an abundance of nebula — the dust clouds in which stars are born — which scientists believed could have been the source of the radio frequencies being emitted.

Scientists then were able to trace three separate non-repeating fast radio bursts back to other galaxies. This time they contained low-rates of star formation, leading them to believe that different signals come from different circumstances, or in other words, repeating FRBs came from galaxies with high-rates of forming stars while the one-off FRBs came from galaxies with similar characteristics but low-rates of star formation.

That theory was turned on its head when a team of scientists from the CHIME Observatory in British Columbia discovered another repeating FRB with their radio telescope near Okanagan Falls.

Working with teams in Europe who then picked up the same radio bursts with their telescopes, the FRBs were successfully traced back to a spiral galaxy 500 million light-years away, making it the closest galaxy to have been found giving them off. Their results were published in the newest edition of the scientific journal Nature.

The problem is, this galaxy doesn’t seem to share any characteristics found in the galaxies where previous FRBs were traced to, which throws a massive wrench in the theories scientists were forming for their cause, and in turn takes them all the way back to square one.

“This is completely different than the host and local environments of other localized FRBs,” Benito Marcote, a radio astronomer at the Joint Institute for VLBI European Research Infrastructure Consortium and lead author of the Nature paper, said during the news briefing. 

Scientific American.

So to sum up, incredibly powerful bursts of radio-frequencies are flying through space from distant galaxies into our telescopes, sometimes many, sometimes just one, and we have no idea why.

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