Bizarre fast radio bursts are coming from a stellar nursery 2.4 billion light years away



During the past decade, astronomers have detected about two dozen fast radio bursts from all over the sky. Each lasts just a few milliseconds, and attempts to explain them have invoked everything from supermassive black holes to little green men.

Until recently, we didn’t even know for sure whether the bursts arose in our galaxy or beyond. But in January, researchers announced a breakthrough. They found the home of a fast radio burst named FRB 121102: a small galaxy in the constellation Auriga 2.4 billion light years from Earth.

Now, Cees Bassa of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy in Dwingeloo and his colleagues have used the Hubble Space Telescope to study the galaxy.

“The Hubble observations allow us to get a very sharp image,” says team member Shriharsh Tendulkar of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “There is a very bright spot of star formation, and this FRB lies bang inside it.”

Meanwhile, Japanese astronomers led by Mitsuru Kokubo of Tohoku University in Sendai used the 8.2-metre Subaru Telescope in Hawaii to target the galaxy. Their images rival Hubble’s because adaptive optics undid the usual blurring created by Earth’s atmosphere.

The Hubble and Subaru images show that the star-forming complex lies on the small galaxy’s outskirts. Hubble’s handiwork puts the galaxy’s visible diameter at about 20,000 light years, one-sixth that of the Milky Way. The stellar nursery is 6200 light years from the galaxy’s centre and spans 4400 light years, far larger than any known in the Milky Way.

Prolific galaxy

“It’s an extraordinary galaxy,” says Dale Frail of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico. “Relative to its small size, it’s making stars at a prolific rate.”

That points to the cause of fast radio bursts. “It’s telling us that they probably occur in young neutron stars,” says Jonathan Katz of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.

Many astronomers already favour that explanation because the short duration of the bursts suggested the source was tiny. Neutron stars fit the bill, and young, fast-spinning ones have plenty of energy to release. They form when short-lived massive stars die in their stellar nurseries.

The researchers added: ‘Whether FRB 121102 is a unique object in the currently known sample of FRBs, or all FRBs are capable of repeating, its characterisation is extremely important to understanding fast extragalactic radio transients.’

Previously when waves have been detected, astronomers have also asked Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) to take a closer look at whether they could be a message from ET. But it is unclear if the McGill researchers will ask Seti to help this time.

If there are any intelligent alien life forms out there, Stephen Hawking thinks we’re playing a dangerous game by trying to contact them.


If there are any intelligent alien life forms out there, Stephen Hawking thinks we’re playing a dangerous game by trying to contact them.

The physicist believes if aliens discovered Earth, they are likely to want to conquer and colonise our planet.

‘If aliens visit us, the outcome could be much like when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,’ he said in an interview.

But co-founder and former director of the Seti Institute, Jill Tarter, doesn’t think this will be the case.

She argues any aliens who have managed to travel across the universe will be sophisticated enough to be friendly and peaceful.

‘The idea of a civilisation which has managed to survive far longer than we have…and the fact that that technology remains an aggressive one, to me, doesn’t make sense,’ she said.


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