Origin of Repeating Radio Signal Discovered in Nearby Galaxy Deepens Astronomical Puzzle

Astronomers found the origin in a galaxy 500 million light-years away from Earth.
Fabienne Lang

To the naked eye, it's hard to see what's going on up in Space. When you look up at a starry night sky you most likely don't think about all the action that's happening up there. 

On January 6, an armada of international astronomers discovered, only for the fifth time ever, the origin of a repeating fast radio burst (FRB). 

Located 500 million light-years away from our planet, it's an exciting discovery that was published in the journal Nature on the same date. 


What are FRBs?

Fast radio bursts are rapid spikes in electromagnetic radiation, detectable through specific antennae otherwise known as radio telescopes. In this instance, it was the eight-meter Gemini North Telescope that discovered the FRB's origin.

FRBs can release as much energy as 500 million Suns and are considered one of the most mysterious phenomenons in the Universe. Typically, their origins and causes are undiscoverable. 

The first FRB ever to be picked up was in 2007, with only a dozen more discovered since then. Repeating FRBs, such as the one from January 6, are fewer and far between. 

The new FRB's puzzling origin

Each FRB is given an unpoetic name or number. In this most recent case, the FRB is known as FRB 180916

Its origin was traced back to a spiral galaxy, similar to our own galaxy's well-known Milky Way. FRB 180916's galaxy is the closest known source of an FRB to date. 

The sources and nature of FRBs remain a mystery to astronomers. They occur at such a speed that most telescopes aren't able to pick their origin up. Furthermore, very few FRBs emit repeated flashes. 

FRB 180916's unexpected origin adds to astronomers' conundrum of FRB origins. "This object’s location is radically different from that of not only the previously located repeating FRB but also all previously studied FRBs," explained Kenzie Nimmo, Ph.D. student at the University of Amsterdam and a fellow lead author of Nature's paper.

Nimmo continued, "This blurs the differences between repeating and non-repeating fast radio bursts. It may be that FRBs are produced in a large zoo of locations across the Universe and just require some specific conditions to be visible."

"This is the closest FRB to Earth ever localized," said Benito Marcote, of the Joint Institute for VLBI European Research Infrastructure Consortium and a lead author of the Nature paper. "Surprisingly, it was found in an environment radically different from that of the previous four localized FRBs — an environment that challenges our ideas of what the source of these bursts could be."

It is clear that further research on FRBs will take place. In the meantime, this is a fascinating discovery for the Universe.

You can join the discussion on Reddit here.

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