Scientists discover an unusual new radio signal from a distant galaxy

Researchers say they have discovered an unusual new radio signal from a distant galaxy.

The signal is known as a fast radio burst, or FRB. These signals are impulses radio waves that scientists believe may come from places in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, or elsewhere.

The first FRB was discovered in 2007. Since then, hundreds of signals have been observed by large telescopes in different parts of the world.

Astronomers don’t know what causes FRBs. But they speculated that the signals could be produced by neutron stars. A neutron star is thought to form after the gravitational collapse of a larger star that explodes at the end of its life.

Researchers reporting the latest FRB say it was unusual because the signal lasted much longer than others observed. Most FRBs only last a few milliseconds. But the new signal lasted up to three seconds – about 1,000 more timers – the team explained in a statement.

The new FRB was first observed in December 2019 by a radio telescope called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME. The telescope is near the town of Kaleden in southwestern Canada. Several Canadian and American universities support the project.

Artist’s impression of a neutron star with an ultra-strong magnetic field, called a magnetar. (Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF/Handout via REUTERS)

CHIME was designed to observe radio waves emitted by hydrogen gas in distant galaxies. But telescope operators say it’s also good at picking up signals from FRBs.

Scientists say they believe the signal came from a galaxy billions of light-years away from Earth. A light year is the distance traveled by light in one year, approximately nine trillion kilometers.

The researchers said the newly observed FRB was also unusual because it appeared to repeat a continuous sequence pattern, “like a beating heart”. Most FRBs observed in the past typically lasted a few milliseconds before fading away.

Danièle Michilli is a postdoctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He helped direct research at the university’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. He says there aren’t many things in the universe that emit the kind of “periodic signals” observed by the telescope.

This led the team to believe that the unusual FRB could have come from two types of neutron star, a pulsar or a magnetar. A pulsar is a rapidly rotating neutron star. A magnetar is a neutron star with a very strong magnetic field. “We believe that this new signal could be a magnetar or a pulsar on steroids“, said Michilli.

Their conclusion the provenance of the signal was based on data collected from pulsars and magnetars observed in our own galaxy. However, the team noted that the unusual FRB appears to be more than a million times brighter than those seen in the Milky Way. Scientists don’t know why the FRB would be so much brighter.

The astronomers said the new signal is the longest lasting and has the clearest periodic pattern of any FRB observed before. They hope to capture additional observations of the signal. This might help them better understand where it came from and learn more about the general nature of neutron stars.

“This detection raises the question of what could be causing this extreme signal that we’ve never seen before, and how we can use this signal to study the universe,” Michilli said. “Future telescopes promise to discover thousands of FRBs per month, and by then we might find many more of these periodic signals.”

I am Brian Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from MIT News, Nature

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words in this story

galaxynm a very large group of stars held together in the universe

impulse nm a short increase in an amount of electricity, light, or sound

pattern nm a regular and repeated way in which something happens

conclusion nm a reasoned judgment

steroid nm a drug used to treat injuries that some athletes use illegally to improve athletic performance

detect v. discover or notice something

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