The signal flashes regularly, drawing comparisons to a cosmic “heartbeat”.
It is classified as a fast radio burst, or FRB. These are very powerful bursts of radio waves of unknown origin, often lasting several milliseconds at a time.
The new Fast Radio Burst flashes 1000 times longer than usual
The newly discovered FRB lasts up to 3 seconds, about 1,000 times longer than the average FRB and is the longest FRB detected-to-date. During those 3 seconds, the team of astronomers also detected radio waves that repeated every 0.2 seconds in a periodic pattern. They also say that it appears to be a million times brighter than other FRBs detected closer to Earth.
The scientists, who have published their findings in the journal Nature, have named the signal FRB 20191221A. The signal comes from a distant galaxy a few billion light-years away. At this point, the researchers behind the discovery can only speculate on the origin of the mysterious signal. They said it could have come from a radio pulse or a magnetic field. Both of these types of neutron stars are rapidly spinning collapsed cores of dead giant stars.
“There are not many things in the universe that emit strictly periodic signals,” explains Daniele Michilli, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “The examples that we know in our galaxy are radio pulsars & magnetars, which rotate and produce a beamed emission similar to a lighthouse. And we think this new signal. maybe a magnetar or a pulsar on steroids.”
New FRB could help measure the expansion of the universe
The team hopes to detect more periodic findings from this source with follow-up observations. They say the FRB could be used as an astrophysical clock to measure the expansion rate of the universe. This will be calculated through the frequency of the bursts and how that changes as the signal source moves away from Earth.
The first FRB was detected as recently as 2007. Since then, hundreds of similar signals have been detected across the universe. The new signal was detected by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME. It was designed to pick-up radio waves emitted by hydrogen from earliest stages of universe. It is also very sensitive to fast radio bursts – it has detected hundreds of signals since it started operating in 2018.
By studying these mysterious signals, we can not only learn more about their origin, but also about the vast universe around the flashing celestial objects.