Magnetars are the Culprit

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

In good news for astronomers and astrophysicists, a surprise discovery points to the source of the cosmic oddity of fast radio bursts. And, don't worry, you don't need a PhD to enjoy this article!


The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, was established in 2018 and spotted hundreds of fast radio bursts, kicking off the hunt for the mysterious source.


In April this year, a newly built radio telescope was monitoring the quiet skies over British Columbia when it caught the flash that would change everything. One of the telescope’s duties was to search for fast radio bursts - millisecond-long blips that, until then, had always come from distant galaxies. No one knew for sure what could create such short explosions of radio waves, making fast radio bursts one of the most intriguing puzzles in astrophysics, reports Quanta Magazine.


An ordinary burst might be seen by two to five of the instrument’s antennas. This burst triggered 93. “It lit up our telescope like a Christmas tree,” said Paul Scholz, an astronomer at the University of Toronto and a member of the CHIME team.


Scholz and his colleagues quickly realized that the burst must be nearby, and not just because the flash was so bright. The flare appeared to originate from a part of the sky where an object in the Milky Way had been shooting out X-rays. The coincidence was strong, and if confirmed, it would let astronomers figure out what causes fast radio bursts.


Quickly calling for assistance from other telescopes around the world, astronomers based at the California Institute of Technology saw the alert and performed a scan of their own data. Unlike CHIME, which looks at small chunks of the sky at any given time, Caltech’s telescope observes the entire sky at once, which allowed the Caltech team to quickly confirm that the burst was extremely powerful. For a brief fraction of a second, the radio waves put out by the source were as bright as those from the sun. That allowed researchers to do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation and affirm that the burst was comparable to extra-galactic fast radio bursts.


Astronomers have racked up roughly 50 separate theories to explain fast radio bursts - a tally that until recently outnumbered the events. The ideas include a variety of wild scenarios involving evaporating black holes, snapping cosmic strings, and even the propulsion systems of alien civilizations. But as the number of detections increased, scientists began to favour one explanation above the rest: magnetars. (A type of neutron star believed to have an extremely powerful magnetic field).


The team at CHIME, with Caltech's help, turned their attention toward the previously known possible source: a magnetar So, with a single lucky discovery, the mystery of where fast radio bursts come from appeared to have been solved.


“It’s not so often that you get a clue that is so striking that it seems to suddenly solve a big chunk of the puzzle,” said Jason Hessels of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and the University of Amsterdam. “Normally we’re kind of chipping away at the problem as opposed to making such a giant leap forward.”


Now they know they're right. Magnetars are the culprits.


So, astronomers will move forward with the next question: how does a magnetar create the brief burst of radio waves? And, more intriguingly, why?


Watch this (outer) space!


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