Thursday, 21 June, 2018

Mystery radio bursts may be from neutron star near a black hole

Kristine Garrett | 10 January, 2018, 21:23

"With these observations we hope to distinguish between the two competing hypotheses of a neutron star either near a black hole or embedded in a powerful nebula". They had been trying to determine whether a magnetic field near the source might have twisted its radio waves, an effect known as Faraday rotation.

The object is producing something called a fast radio burst, or FRB. But scientists are still scratching their heads over what could cause such a mighty blast.

The scientists detailed their findings in the January 11 issue of the journal Nature. "And this is such a tantalizing mystery and as time goes on we're getting more clues". Based on observations from our own galaxy, this could mean the source is close to a powerful black hole. They are also dispersed - high frequency wavelengths arrive earlier than lower frequency ones, indicating that the burst travel long distances across vast expanses of space to reach Earth.

"Last year's localization was a game-changer in a very direct way", says Jim Cordes, a study co-author and astronomer at Cornell. Of those, just one has gone off a few times: a signal called FRB 121102, captured in 2012 by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Just one of these fast radio bursts has been found to flash again and again: FRB 121102. However, the most powerful of these flares ever observed has been four orders of magnitude below FRB 121102.

Their patience paid off on December 25, 2016.

In the weeks following that Christmas detection, Arecibo registered 15 more bursts from this one source. In October, 10 months after Seymour detected that initial burst at Arecibo, Jason Hessels, an astronomer at the University of Amsterdam, and his student Daniele Michilli were staring at the data on Michilli's laptop screen.

Subsequent observations by fleet of powerful telescopes working in a wide range of wavelengths captured dozens more bursts (FRB 121102 has now been seen flaring more than 200 times) and revealed some surprising characteristics of this far-off flashbulb.

Because majority burst once and never return, they are impossible to predict, and impossible to trace.

The almost 100 percent polarization of the radio bursts is unusual, and has only been seen in radio emissions from the extreme magnetic environments around massive black holes, such as those at the centers of galaxies. "They demonstrate that this FRB is in a highly magnetised environment", he said.

An alternative explanation is that the FRB source is surrounded by a highly-magnetized cocoon of material - perhaps the fog of gas and dust from which new stars form, or the detritus created by a dying star when it explodes. They had been looking for just a little bit of a twist.

To dig further in, researchers will use several next-generation telescopes with several complicated acronyms (CHIME, ASKAP, UTMOST, and APERTIF) to provide a broader coverage area for fast radio bursts. This 3-D print shows how bright the burst is as a function of observed radio frequency and time. Soon after he began recording his observations, an extremely powerful radio source, 3 billion light-years away, chose to say hello.

But even if FRB 121102 is not alien in origin, as is likely, it is still an extremely impressive phenomenon. "It's like fresh powder snow on a ski slope", said Chatterjee.

Laura Spitler, discovered FRB 121102 in 2014 as a postdoctoral researcher when she sifted through 2012 data from Arecibo acquired by the Pulsar Arecibo L-Band Feed Array survey that searches for pulsars and transient sources. In a fanciful paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters this year, a pair of Harvard theorists suggested that a solar powered alien craft could explain the bursts.

The 100-meter Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia is shown amid a starry night.

Much remains a mystery about the origins of FRBs, because their brief nature makes it hard to pinpoint where they come from.

Many neutron stars rotate rapidly and emit regular radio waves, and the objects that do are called pulsars.

Hessels and team believe a neutron star sitting in one of these extreme magnetic environments could be the source itself.

The theory still has some unexplained mysteries, however.

Meanwhile, astronomers are eager to detect additional repeating bursts.

A 3D-printed model of FRB 121102. Do all FRBs repeat? And, because they don't repeat - FRB 121102 is the only repeater - it's very possible that FRB 121102 is unique in its source, and the others emanate from different sources.

West Virginia University astrophysicist Sarah Burke-Spaloar, who has been involved in previous research on FRB 121102 but was not part of the most recent study, said this latest finding will help "steer the field".

"Myself and many others would love to know whether this fast radio burst phenomenon has a single or multiple physical origins", Hessels said.


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