Astronomers detect mysterious repeated radio signal from faraway galaxy for second time

An artist's conception of a type of neutron star called a magnetar

A powerful intergalactic telescope used by astronomers in Canada has recorded 13 mysterious radio signals emanating from a distant galaxy, and the origin and nature of the radio waves is baffling scientists. The only known repeating fast radio burst source -FRB 121102-has been localised to a star-forming region in a dwarf galaxy...

Popular explanations for FRBs include rapidly spinning neutron stars with strong magnetic fields (known as magnetars), mergers of highly dense objects, collapsed stars, supermassive black holes, and - much more speculatively-extraterrestrial civilizations.

Such signals have only ever been detected once before, by a different telescope.

"We certainly hoped that the CHIME telescope was going to be able to discover a lot of fast radio bursts", said Ingrid Stairs, a member of the CHIME team and an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia.

Professor Avi Loeb, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in the USA, has previously said that FRBs could potentally be evidence of advanced alien technology.

The University went on to say that FRBs are hard to research but could be linked to powerful astrophysical objects such as supernova remnants.

Of the FRBs observed to date, repeating bursts from a single source had been found only once before - a discovery made by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 2015. One of the signals repeated six times from the same location.

Petroff was also surprised that CHIME found so many FRBs so quickly.

The CHIME telescope in British Columbia will search our universe for phenomena such as fast radio bursts, pulsars and more. Excitingly, it bears striking similarities to the first repeating FRB.

The repeating FRB detected this past summer by CHIME is only the second one of its kind ever recorded, following one that was detected in 2012.

The CHIME researchers are working with an array of antennas in central New Mexico to pin down the galaxy to which the second repeater belongs. They don't know whether the bursts are like flashbulbs, lighting up the sky in every direction, or focused beams, which would require less energy but must be more frequent for Earth to see so many of them.

Indeed, it's still early days in our understanding of FRBs, but a pair of papers published today in Nature are offering tantalising new clues about this enigmatic feature of the cosmos.

Why the bursts happen remain a mystery.

While most FRBs have been spotted at wavelengths of a few centimetres, the latest FRBs were detected at wavelengths of almost a metre, which opens up new lines of inquiry, according to the CHIME team.

The low frequency of this new detection could mean that the source of the bursts differ.

Since FRBs occur so quickly, studying them and identifying the source is hard.

Over time, Stairs says researchers will hopefully be able to develop a "clearer picture" that could lead to figuring out what exactly is producing these radio waves.

"We have discovered a second repeater and its properties are very similar to the first repeater. But it has to be in some special place to give us all the scattering that we see".

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