Quirks & Quarks

A blast of radio waves in our galaxy gives insight into mysterious 'fast radio bursts'

The observation of a fast radio burst coming from the Milky Way Galaxy means scientists can finally get some answers about these mysterious space signals.

For the first time, researchers were able to trace one of these mysterious space signals back to its source

Astronomer Ziggy Pleunis stands at the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) radio telescope in Penticton, B.C., where they recently detected a fast radio burst coming from inside our own galaxy for the first time. (Ziggy Pleunis)

When it comes to space, there's a lot of exotic phenomena out there. 

Among the most mysterious are fast radio bursts. These are immensely powerful bursts of radio waves that come from the depths of the cosmos and appear as bright flashes to radio telescopes. 

Now, for the first time, scientists have observed one of these split-second space signals happening in our own galaxy, which allowed them to trace it back to its source — a highly magnetic neutron star, called a magnetar.

"We knew something was up with this burst," radio astronomer Ziggy Pleunis told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. "It was very quick to make this connection. There have been x-ray flares from [the magnetar]. We see a radio burst from the same direction. It's likely that it's the same source."

Since the first fast radio burst was observed in 2007, scientists around the world have been recording these strange radio signals coming from every direction in the universe, and trying to understand where they come from. According to Pleunis, they estimate a thousand of them happen each day, releasing as much energy in a fraction of a second as the sun releases over three days.

Using the CHIME radio telescope, seen here, astronomers were able to trace a fast radio burst (FRB) to a powerfully, dense star called a magnetar. It is the first time the source of an FRB has been located. (Andre Recnik/CHIME)

Pleunis is a researcher at the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment — or CHIME— where they scan the skies thousands of times per second to spot fast radio bursts. In April, they saw a signal far brighter than average, and its signature suggested it didn't travel far.

Their analysis is one of three papers recently published about this discovery in the journal Nature.

Pleunis is a Postdoctoral researcher at McGill University, and the coordinator of the CHIME Fast Radio Burst experiment. You can hear his conversation with Bob McDonald at the link above.


Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz

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