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Another Mysterious Radio Burst From Space

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

Last year, astronomers and astrophysicists thought they had finally figured out where fast radio bursts came from, namely magnetars: a type of neutron star believed to have an extremely powerful magnetic field. But now scientists are baffled again.

Bright, fleeting blasts of radio waves coming from the vicinity of a nearby galaxy are deepening one of astronomy’s biggest mysteries. The repeating bursts of energy seem to be coming from an ancient group of stars called a globular cluster, which is among the last places astronomers expected to find them, reports National Geographic.

Often originating billions of light-years away, the extremely bright, extremely brief bursts of radio waves known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs, have defied explanation since they were first spotted in 2007. Based on observations to date, scientists surmised that the bursts are powered by young, short-lived cosmic objects called magnetars. [OGN June 2020]

But a fast radio burst discovered last year has now been traced to a globular cluster about 11.7 million light-years away. Finding this burst among a cluster of aging stars is kind of like finding a smartphone embedded in Stonehenge - the observation doesn’t make sense.

“This is definitely not a place fast radio bursts are expected to live,” says Bryan Gaensler, an astronomer at the University of Toronto and a co-author of the new paper on the subject. “Just what is going on?”

Scientists are struggling to explain the cosmic anachronism. They’re also moving toward the conclusion that maybe, as with many other celestial phenomena, there are multiple ways to cook up a fast radio burst.

“FRBs might be - might be - just this generic phenomenon associated with a whole range of possible sources,” says Cornell University astronomer Shami Chatterjee, who studies the bursts but is not part of the discovery team.

Watch this (outer) space!

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