Energy bursts arriving from deep in space have odd origin, scientists say

"New phenomena get scientists excited".

In research presented on Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society, an global team of astronomers traced a repeating fast radio burst to a region of star formation in a dim dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years away.

The signals appear to be coming from somewhere with very strong and very rare magnetic fields.

Artist's concept of a fast radio burst arriving at the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico.

"Can we maybe now understand how this extreme environment is related to the fact that this is the only known repeating FRB?" asks study co-author Jason Hessels, an astronomer at the University of Amsterdam and ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.

The scientists detailed their findings in the January 11 issue of the journal Nature. "Right now, I would say nothing is ruled out!" he said.

Based on their puzzling data, the scientists suggest the fast radio bursts may be coming from a highly magnetised neutron star - known as a magnetar - which is in the vicinity of a massive black hole 10 to 100 million times the size of the Sun and produces an extreme magnetic field or spewing out hot gases.

They are far more powerful than anything in our own galaxy, and so fast and focused they seem to have shot out the barrel of some cosmic gun.

Ever since their discovery more than a decade ago, enigmatic flashes of radio waves have puzzled astronomers. The radio waves from FRB 121102 were short in duration and strongly polarized (with most of the radio waves all rippling in the same direction), similar to radio emissions from young energetic neutron stars previously seen in the Milky Way galaxy, Andrew Seymour, co-author on the study and a researcher at the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center at Arecibo Observatory, said in the statement.

Chief among these quirks is the dramatic twisting of the signal's polarisation - the plane on which the waves oscillate. Its twisting is 500 times greater than all other recorded fast radio bursts. Such a situation is thought to form around black holes, though could be the result of other unusual astrophysical circumstances.

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An alternative explanation is that the FRB source is surrounded by a highly-magnetized cocoon of material - perhaps the fog of gas and dust from which new stars form, or the detritus created by a dying star when it explodes. The new measurements could offer a major clue to the FRB's cause.

The higher-resolution radio observations made possible by knowing the precise location of the burst also revealed that bursts were clustered - several might happen in the space of a second - and oddly structured. That's the only one of the incredibly bright signals from which there have been repeated bursts, making it the most reliable for researchers to study. The explanation is more orthodox than some of the alternatives offered, but could point astronomers towards some of the most extreme magnetic environments in the known universe. "It's like fresh powder snow on a ski slope", said Chatterjee.

"Our partners in the Breakthrough Listen project were able to use the Green Bank Telescope and a fantastic new instrument that they built to observe this source over the widest range of radio frequencies to-date, confirming what had been seen at Arecibo Observatory".

Lorimer said the mystery of why most FRBs have not been observed to repeat raised the question of how they differed, or whether they resulted from an altogether separate phenomenon. It is possible that a neutron star sitting in such a position could produce such blasts.

Even the idea that the source itself is some kind of pulsar doesn't explain why the bursts are so clumped.

Meanwhile, astronomers are eager to detect additional repeating bursts. That means FRBs could become best-in-class probes of cosmic structure, allowing researchers to determine not only the distance to any given FRB but also how much intervening material lies in interstellar and intergalactic space along its path.

A 3D-printed depiction of one of FRB 121102's radio bursts detected with Arecibo shows how bright the burst was as a function of observed radio frequency and time.

West Virginia University astrophysicist Sarah Burke-Spaloar, who has been involved in previous research on FRB 121102 but was not part of the most recent study, said this latest finding will help "steer the field".

Scientists have picked up something very unusual about one of the most odd phenomenon we know.

For this paper, the scientists wanted to figure out more about the environment around this source.

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