Source of Mystery FRB Bursts "Like Nothing We've Seen Before, Unlike Anything Known to Exist in our Galaxy"
On Christmas Eve 2016, Andrew Seymour, an astronomer at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, kissed his 4-year-old daughter, Cora Lee, goodnight, telling her he was off to track Santa. He walked to the well-worn telescope, occasionally passing revelers riding horses through the empty streets — a common sight in Arecibo during the holidays. Sometimes a lonely firework would light up in the distance. Close to midnight, he nodded to a guard and entered the nearly empty complex.
The radio dish was on a break from its regular schedule, so Seymour decided to test out new hardware that he and his colleagues had been working on, writes Katia Moskvitch in Quanta Magazine. Soon after he began recording his observations, an extremely powerful radio source, 3 billion light-years away, decided to say hello. Seymour didn’t find Santa that Christmas, but rather an unexpected twist in the tale of one of the most mysterious objects in the cosmos.
The object that Seymour caught that night was the only known repeating fast radio burst (FRB), an ultra-brief flash of energy that flickers on and off at uneven intervals. Astronomers had been debating what might be causing the mysterious repeater, officially called FRB 121102 and unofficially the “Spitler burst,” after the astronomer who discovered it.
In the weeks following that Christmas detection, Arecibo registered 15 more bursts from this one source. These flashes were the highest frequency FRBs ever captured at the time, a measurement made possible by the hardware Seymour and his team had just installed. Based on the new information, the scientists have concluded in a study released in the journal Nature that whatever object is creating the bursts, it must be in a very odd and extreme cosmic neighborhood, something akin to the environment surrounding a black hole with a mass of more than 10,000 suns.
The new work helps to strengthen the theory that at least some FRBs might be produced by magnetars — highly magnetized, rotating neutron stars, which are the extremely dense remains of massive stars that have gone supernova, said Shami Chatterjee, an astrophysicist at Cornell University. In the case of the repeater, it could be a neutron star “that lives in the environment of a massive black hole,” he said. Or it might also be like nothing we’ve seen before — a different kind of magnetar ensconced in a very intense, magnetically dense birth nebula, unlike any known to exist in our galaxy — “quite extraordinary circumstances,” he said.
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Source and reference: Quanta Magazine