Interstellar radio burst creates a scientific buzz4 min read

MONTREAL — In a galaxy far, far away … an extraordinarily bright radio burst that was detected by McGill University researchers has generated much excitement in the scientific community and has triggered a huge new mystery for astrophysicists to solve.

Just what caused the mysterious pulse that came from deep in outer space and caused such a massive explosion that is millions, or likely billions, times brighter than anything that has been seen in our galaxy?


“It’s very rare in science to find a totally new phenomenon and we want to study it,” said Victoria Kaspi, a physics professor at McGill and principal investigator for the pulsar-survey project that detected the split-second burst of radio waves using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

“To come up with enough energy to produce these kinds of bursts you need something truly spectacular,” she said in an interview. “That’s why we’re excited. It has to be something that can pack a real punch that can make something so bright that we can see it here, across the universe.”

The radio burst also offered researchers a glimpse back in time — it was so far away that Kaspi estimates it occurred 3 billion years ago.

The discovery is by a team of international astronomers, which published its findings this month in The Astrophysical Journal. Some similar pulses had been detected using the Parkes radio telescope in Australia, but since it was the only instrument to have found them, it was widely believed that they might have been picking up signals from sources on or near Earth. Sometimes satellites or even cellphones can send a signal that is detected.

Kaspi’s team’s discovery changes that.

“Since we’re seeing the same thing from a different telescope and using different software, we now know it’s a natural phenomenon,” she said. “Our result is important because it eliminates any doubt that these radio bursts are truly of cosmic origin.”

It was one lone little burst that wasn’t repeating that caught the attention of researchers in 2012.

There are several tests that can be administered to check if the burst was the result of man-made interference. If it was airport radar or a cellphone, for example, it would show up in all seven positions in the sky the telescope checks. But it didn’t.

The meaning, then, is that the pulses are extraterrestrial, meaning from beyond Earth, but Kaspi is quick to say there’s no indication the pulses are associated with intelligent life; they are considered a natural phenomenon.

Now that they have found it, scientists are baffled about what they’ve seen. It is far beyond our galaxy and unlike anything that has been discovered. For one thing, while it was a tiny blip that was detected, it is believed that such bursts must be very common and must occur thousands of times every day across the sky.

Possibilities include binary neutron stars that are smashing together or binary white dwarf stars. Maybe it’s an evaporating black hole or flares from magnetars, a type of neutron star with extremely powerful magnetic fields — and which is known to be extremely violent.

A magnetar would be Kaspi’s first choice, as she studies them and McGill is home to the online magnetar catalogue (there are 27 documented), which is used worldwide.

“We do see very dramatic bursts from magnetars in our galaxy but nothing this bright,” Kaspi said. “They are good at producing massive explosions, and it would make me happy to think that (magnetars) are even more spectacular than I ever knew.”

Hey, an astrophysicist can dream, can’t she?

The team will continue to try to detect radio bursts using radio telescopes that can observe broad swaths of the sky to help identify them.

Canada’s new CHIME telescope, being built in British Columbia, is an $11-million project that will use components from the cellphone industry to capture and turn radio waves emitted 6 billion to 11 billion years ago into a three-dimensional map. It’s the first research telescope built in Canada in more than 30 years and includes scientists from the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory near Penticton, as well as the University of British Columbia, McGill and the University of Toronto.

Kaspi believes it may be a perfect tool to help scientists better understand what they saw in the deep recesses of space.

For now, she and her team will continue to study the stars and use massive supercomputing to help them try to solve the mystery of the fast radio burst.

May the force be with them.

Source: Montreal Gazette

Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

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