Scientists have discovered a new fast radio burst coming to us from outer space – from a strange and unexpected place.
The Shatter is only the second known example of the kind and has led to new questions about what exactly they are and how they can be used to understand the universe.
The newly discovered object sends out frequent and repeated bursts of energy, scientists say. It resembles the first fast radio burst, or FRB, whose location has been found – but is otherwise different from many examples that have been found.
Fast radio bursts are very intense, very brief bursts of energy that reach us from the depths of space. They were first detected in 2007 and scientists have found dozens of them since.
This extensive catalog has brought researchers closer to trying to figure out where they came from, though their source remains a mystery. Researchers have suggested everything from black holes to alien technology – although the most likely explanation is a magnetar, which is a type of neutron star.
Recent research has also suggested that there are different types of FRBs, and the newly discovered object further strengthens this argument. Researchers wonder if those who repeat their signals in this way might be fundamentally different from others.
The increase in the number of these bursts that have been detected has also allowed scientists to use them as a way to study other parts of the cosmos, as well as being interesting in their own right. They can be used to measure the content of the intergalactic medium, or the space between galaxies.
By observing how explosions propagate through space, scientists can better understand the still largely mysterious material that covers much of the universe, between their source and Earth.
However, scientists must make assumptions about the signals and their source to use them correctly. Generally, for example, scientists believe that their host galaxies do not cause fast radio bursts to scatter, which is expressed using the “dispersion measure”.
But the new fast radio burst doesn’t seem to fit that picture. Although in some ways similar to the first repetitive radio burst ever detected, its galaxy has a much greater scatter measurement.
Estimates had suggested that the galaxy should be around 3 billion light-years from Earth. But it is dispersed as if it came from a galaxy about three times further away.
“That means there’s a lot of material near the FRB that would confuse any attempt to use it to measure gas between galaxies,” said Kshitij Aggarwal, a graduate student at the University of West Virginia. “If that’s the case with others, then we can’t rely on FRBs being used as cosmic criteria.”
This adds yet another mystery to the blasts, which after 15 years and numerous examples remain fascinating and unrecognized by astronomers who study them.
Further research on FRBs such as the one recently discovered could help solve some of this mystery, as well as answer questions posed by recent papers. Scientists hope to better understand how repeating and non-repeating FRBs are different, for example, and whether they can come from sources of different ages or from entirely separate things.
The findings are reported in an article, “A Repetitive Fast Radio Burst Associated with a Persistent Radio Source,” published in Nature today.
The new FRB has been assigned the number 20190520B and its host galaxy is J160204.31−111718.5. It was found using China’s Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, or FAST, in 2019, and further work has been done to examine it since, using a range of different equipment.