Scientists Discover Magnetic Field Distorting Radio Bursts From Space

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Radio bursts located more than 3 billion light years away were observed by astronomers, and may be the result of an extreme environment with a strong magnetic field – such as a supermassive black hole or the remains of a supernova.

FRB 121102

This previously unexplained phenomenon of very distant radio bursts was dubbed FRB 121102, and these most recent findings were detailed in the journal Nature as well as at the American Astronomical Society meeting outside of Washington. These radio bursts had been a subject of study for years, and we may finally have an answer as to what caused this mysterious occurrence

These radio bursts were first discovered while poring over older archived data, and the reason for these signals had been unknown until now. Each of the radio bursts only lasted milliseconds, but managed to be incredibly bright for that amount of time – indicating that whatever caused these bursts was incredibly powerful.

At a briefing on Wednesday, Betsey Adams of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) stated that “it’s some sort of extreme physics that causes this emission and so the goal is to understand that.”

There are issues in studying these radio bursts, however, in that each burst only happens once. The fact that the emissions aren’t continually happening from the same spot indicate that it may be from some sort of astronomical explosion and death. Even if we were to capture one of these radio bursts in action, there would be no way to revisit the source in order to take measurements and figure out what exactly is going on.

Jason Hessels, another astrophysicist associated with ASTRON as well as the University of Amsterdam, stated that “we know of thirty sources of fast radio bursts, and this is the only one we’ve ever seen that repeats,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

The fact that FRB 121102 repeats its radio bursts is unique and also gives researchers a better opportunity to ascertain what exactly has happened. Discovered back in 2012, it has since repeatedly sent out radio waves, making it the perfect opportunity to learn more about the phenomenon. So far we haven’t been able to understand a pattern to the radio bursts, other than the fact that they’re often clustered rather than evenly spaced.

Previously, it was thought that the source were to be some sort of neutron star, such as a pulsar or a magnetar, and this finding seems to reinforce that fact. FRB 121102 is located in a star-forming region of its galaxy, which leads scientists to believe that the radio bursts are related in some way to the birth or death of a star.

Research Findings

With the paper recently published in Nature, scientists aimed to discover more about the environment surrounding the source rather than the source itself. The research was conducted using data from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico as well as the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. In order to better understand the environment surrounding the radio bursts, the scientists looked at the polarization of light, which basically indicates how the light has been distorted. The results seem to indicate that these radio bursts were twisted by a powerful magnetic field.

According to Hessels, these polarization effects are often observed around powerful bodies like the supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. That would make sense given the fact that FRB 121102 could be manipulated by ionized gas or plasma around the black hole.

Despite the fact that only a couple dozen individual sources of these radio bursts exist, scientists estimate that around 10000 of these events happen across the sky every single day. It’s a significant astronomical event that we don’t yet have an explanation for, but at least now we’re a little closer. Hessels and his team do have some guesses as to what is causing these mysterious bursts.

This research suggests that these fast bursts are coming from a pulsar that is coincidentally sitting near a growing black hole that is surrounded by gas and dust. This is still just a theory at this point in time, but it adds another piece of knowledge as we struggle to understand the reason behind these mysterious radio bursts. More research will be required in order to ascertain exactly what is happening, but at least right now we know that a magnetic field is playing a major part in this phenomenon.

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