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Cosmic flashes have been discovered at a surprising place in space

By: April Carson

Astronomers were perplexed by the closest source of unusual flashes in the sky, which are known as fast radio bursts. Precision observations with radio telescopes have revealed that the bursts come from ancient stars and in a manner that no one had imagined. The nearest such source to Earth is M 81, a galaxy spiral with a rapid spin rate.

"We were very surprised to find that the bursts come from such an ancient and inactive galaxy," said Sarah Burke-Spolaor, an astronomer at West Virginia University in Morgantown and the lead author of a paper on the finding. "It's like they're coming from another time."

This week's publication of an international team of astronomers, including Ramesh Karuppusamy and Uwe Bach of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, is accompanied by two papers in Nature and Nature Astronomy.

Fast radio bursts are brief, unpredictable flashes of light from space. Since their discovery in 2007, astronomers have attempted to figure them out. They've only been observed using radio telescopes so far.

Each flash lasts just a thousandth of a second. Yet each one creates as much energy as the Sun's entire output in a day. Every day, hundreds of flashes are observed all over the sky. Most of them are millions of light-years away from Earth in distant galaxies.

Now, astronomers have found a fast radio burst in our own galaxy.

The flash was discovered using the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. It's the first time one has been found in our galaxy. And it's only the second time one has been found anywhere near Earth.

The discovery of an unusual pulsating star is causing a stir among scientists, who are now one step closer to solving the riddle—while also raising new questions. Franz Kirsten (Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden) and Kenzie Nimmo (ASTRON, Netherlands) lead the team.

The researchers set out to make high-precision measurements of a recurring burst source discovered in January 2020 in the Great Bear's constellation.

"We looked for hints to the bursts' origins. We knew we could pinpoint the source's position on the sky with extreme accuracy because of all of our radio telescopes working together. That allows us to glimpse what a nearby area around a fast radio burst would look like," adds Franz Kirsten.

The researchers discovered that the recurring radio bursts were originating from a location no one had considered.

They determined that the bursts were generated by a source within Messier 81, which is approximately 12 million light years away. This makes it the most definitive detection of a fast radio burst source yet discovered.

Another surprise was in store. A dense cluster of very old stars, known as a globular cluster, was discovered at the site.

"It's exciting to discover fast radio bursts from a globular cluster. This is a location in space where you'll find only ancient stars. Fast radio bursts have been discovered at greater distances in the cosmos, indicating that they come from younger stars," Kenzie Nimmo adds.

The fact that the burst's characteristics are similar to those of some pulsars in our galaxy raises us to familiar grounds, but it emphasizes that the FRB progenitors can be quite diverse. This certainly encourages further study of other such radio bursts, according on Karuppusamy.

Fast radio bursts have been found in areas surrounding young, massive stars that are many times larger than the Sun. Many star eruptions occur in these regions and leave extremely magnetized residues as a result.

Fast radio bursts, experts say, may be caused by magnetars. Magnetars are the extremely compact remnants of stars that have exploded. They're also the universe's most magnetic meteors.

The discovery of FRBs in such an environment suggests that there may be more than one type of progenitor for these powerful radio signals. The implication is that astronomers should study other types of events, in addition to supernovas, to find the sources of FRBs.

"We anticipate magnetars to be sparkling and brand new, not encircled by old stars. As a result, if we're seeing a magnetar, it can't have been produced via a young star exploding. There must be another explanation," adds ASTRON's team member, Jason Hessels from the University of Amsterdam.

According to the researchers, the source of the radio flashes is what has been anticipated but never observed: a magnetar that resulted when a white dwarf became massive enough to collapse under its own weight.

Strange events occur in the multi-billion-year life of a crowded stellar group. Franz Kirsten explains, "We believe we're seeing a star with an exciting backstory."

After millions of years, ordinary stars, such as the Sun, grow old and transform into tiny, compact, brilliant objects known as white dwarfs. Many stars in the cluster are binary systems. A few of the tens of thousands of stars in the cluster approach near enough for one star to take matter from the other.

"Accretion-induced collapse" can occur as a side effect of "accretion," Kirsten explains. In this process, gas from a donor star is pulled onto a white dwarf. The white dwarf's gravity pulls the gas down so quickly that it heats up and starts to glow.

"If a white dwarf collects enough extra mass from its partner, it can transform into an even more compact star, called a neutron star. It's a rare event, but in a cluster of ancient stars, it's the most straightforward way to generate fast radio bursts," explains team member Mohit Bhardwaj of McGill University in Canada.

The ancient star cluster is about 13.7 billion years old, meaning it formed not long after the Big Bang. The finding could help researchers learn more about the early universe.

The team conducted an analysis of the data and discovered another surprise. Some of the bursts were even shorter than they had anticipated.

Within a few tens of nanoseconds, the flashes flickered in brightness. That implies they must be coming from a tiny area in space that is smaller than a soccer pitch and perhaps only tens of meters wide, according to Kenzie Nimmo.

The Crab pulsar, which was the fastest known star in the sky until recently, has also generated lightning-fast signals. It is a tiny, dense remnant of a supernova explosion that was visible from Earth in 1054 CE in the Taurus Bull constellation. Both magnetars and pulsars are types of neutron stars: super-dense objects with a mass equal to that of the Sun contained within a city-sized volume and strong magnetic fields.

"We detected some of the signals we looked at were brief and extremely strong, in the same way that Crab pulsar signals are. That suggests we're seeing a magnetar in a place where magnetars haven't been discovered before," Kenzie Nimmo adds.

The source of the storm has yet to be determined, and future observations of this system and others will help determine whether it is a true magnetar or something else, such as an unusual pulsar or a black hole surrounded by a dense star.

These rapid radio bursts appear to be giving us new and unexpected information about stars' lives and deaths, according to Franz Kirsten. They could, like supernovae, have things to say about the lives of stars and their death across the whole universe if that's true.

"Supernovae are the most energetic explosions in the universe and are crucial for understanding how elements heavier than helium are created," Kirsten says.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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