An Indian-origin scientist and his team from Cornell University found the origin of mysterious busts of radio waves from the cosmological source to more than 3 billion light-years away.
The “fast radio bursts”, which puzzled space scientists for over ten years, were previously thought to have had emanated from within the Milky Way galaxy, but the astronomers now confirm that they are long-distance flashes from across the universe.
“These radio flashes must have enormous amounts of energy to be visible from over 3 billion light-years away,” said lead author Shami Chatterjee, lead researcher.
James Cordes, the George Feldstein Professor of Astronomy and Robert Wharton, doctoral student in astronomy who are part of team explain it to be from distant origin. Cordes said: “Now we can do real astrophysical analysis on the burst source and the galaxy that harbors it.”
Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, were first seen about 10 years ago in November 2012, when Cornell astronomers using the Arecibo Observatory captured the first FRB – which lasted three one-thousandths of a second.
Laura Spitler discovered it as a postdoctoral researcher sifting through radio telescope data, called FRB 121102. Until then, only the Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, had discovered some handful FRBs.
Rising just ahead of the winter constellation Orion, FRB 121102 – the one discovered at Arecibo – has a home in the pentagon-shaped constellation Auriga. “There’s a patch of the sky from which we’re getting this signal – and the patch of the sky is arc minutes in diameter. In that patch are hundreds of sources. Lots of stars, lots of galaxies, lots of stuff,” said Chatterjee.
Astronomers blended detective work with modern telescope technology, combing through terabytes of data. After 50 hours, they were able to hit the jackpot. “We caught the fast radio burst in the act,” said Chatterjee.
The astronomers used NASA’s Chandra X-ray satellite, Chile’s Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, and the Gemini optical telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. “With the Gemini telescope, this optical blob looks like a faint, faint, faint galaxy – and this faint, fuzzy blob corresponds with, smack onto, the radio source,” Chatterjee said.
Other telescopes around the world helped to plot the light spectrum. “It’s got a detectable signal of very particular colors of hydrogen, oxygen and other elements – but Doppler-shifted,” said Chatterjee, explaining about the shifting wavelengths.
What is the nature of the source? What powers these bursts and are there other ones that repeat? “We think it may be a magnetar – a newborn neutron star with a huge magnetic field, inside a supernova remnant or a pulsar wind nebula – somehow producing these prodigious pulses,” said Chatterjee. “Or, it may be an active galactic nucleus of a dwarf galaxy. That would be novel. Or, it may be a combination of those two ideas – explaining why what we’re seeing may be somewhat rare.”
The report has been published in the journal Nature.