For the first time, scientists have been able to trace the origin of “fast radio bursts” to a billion sun-bright event that occurred in a galaxy full of dying suns about six billion light years away from Earth.
Fast Radio Bursts, Radio waves invisible to the eye (not the radio telescope)
It’s estimated that thousands of “fast radio bursts” occur each day. Though they last only a thousandth of a second and have been known about for about a decade, scientists really didn’t know from where they originated.
That’s now changed. Or, at least it’s changed in the case of a single “fast radio burst.” Researchers using the giant Subaru optical telescope in Hawaii as well as radio telescopes in Australia were able to follow and subsequently trace a burst which was observed in April 2015.
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The researchers findings were published this week in the journal Nature.
The source was an elliptical galaxy full of dying suns over 6 billion light waves away. While the billion sun-bright event could have come from a supernova or flaring pulsars, the researchers postulate that this came from a collision between two hyper-annuated suns or neutron stars.
“Our discovery opens the way to working out what makes these bursts,” Simon Johnston, one of the team members who made the FRB discovery, said in a statement.
It’s believed that in that fraction of a second, a billion sun-bright event puts out more energy than that sun would emit in over 10,000 years.
“Fast Radio Burst” followed for six days
“I’ve been pretty skeptical of the ‘compact object merger’ hypothesis, but the authors’ observations are just beautifully consistent with what you’d expect,” astronomer Peter K.G. Williams, who is unaffiliated with the study, told Mashable via email.
“But I’ve also heard rumors about other results that other teams that are working on that are totally inconsistent with this hypothesis, so the theorists still have a lot of work left to do! It’s an exciting time.”
In a companion piece to the paper published in Nature, Astronomer Duncan Lorimer suggests that the FRB in question could have been caused by the merger of two neutron stars.
“Such a system would emit a large fraction of its energy in the form of gravitational waves, which are produced by accelerating bodies, according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity,” Lorimer wrote.
A paper detailing the first physically observed gravitational waves was published earlier this month in another scientific first courtesy of the LIGO project.
“This is getting a bit ahead of ourselves, but a simultaneous detection of an FRB and a gravitational wave event would be — this is a technical term — totally bananas,” Williams said in his correspondence with Mashable.
Mapping of the universe
The discovery of gravitational waves will ultimately open up a new way of looking at the universe. If FRB data can also be studied, scientists should have even more data points they can use to “map the universe.”
Now that scientists know the distance to the galaxy that caused the FRB…..
“By also having a distance we can now measure how dense the material is between the point of origin and Earth, and compare that with the current model of the distribution of matter in the universe,” Johnston said. “Essentially this lets us weigh the universe, or at least the normal matter it contains.”
“It’s the first time a fast radio burst has been used to conduct a cosmological measurement,” Evan Keane, co-author of the new study, said in the statement.
Fast radio bursts aren’t easy to find and only 17 have been observed; the bulk of which came from backtracking through data rather than through the tracking highlighted in the paper.
“There are good reasons to think that our understanding of fast radio bursts will increase dramatically in the near future,” Lorimer said. “New telescopes,including the Canadian HydrogenIntensity Mapping Experiment and the Five hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope in China, should discover many FRBs.”
Space is the bee’s knees these days
There is, quite simply, no better time to have been alive if either fascinated by the cosmos or a scientist. Seemingly each day provides a discovery that shocks the physics or astronomical community and with new technologies being erected on Earth or making the trip into space, this isn’t going to change anytime soon.
In less than two years NASA will launch the post powerful telescope ever built into Space while private space companies will begin flying manned missions to the International Space Station. Hell, even I as a heavy smoker in my 40’s may even see a man or woman walk on the surface of Mars.