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Astronomers Find Source of Mysterious Radio Burst

It was tracked to a 'magnetar' in our own galaxy
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 4, 2020 2:33 PM CST

(Newser) – A flash of luck helped astronomers solve a cosmic mystery: What causes powerful but fleeting radio bursts that zip and zigzag through the universe? Scientists have known about these energetic pulses—called fast radio bursts—for about 13 years and have seen them coming from outside our galaxy, which makes it harder to trace them back to what's causing them. Making it even harder is that they happen so fast, in a couple of milliseconds. Then this April, a rare but considerably weaker burst coming from inside our own Milky Way galaxy was spotted by two dissimilar telescopes: one a California doctoral student’s set of handmade antennas, which included actual cake pans, the other a $20 million Canadian observatory. They tracked that fast radio burst to a weird type of star called a magnetar that’s 32,000 light-years from Earth, according to four studies in the journal Nature.

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It was not only the first fast radio burst traced to a source, but the first emanating from our galaxy, the AP reports. Astronomers say there could be other sources for these bursts, but they are now sure about one guilty party: magnetars. Magnetars are incredibly dense neutron stars, with 1.5 times the mass of our sun squeezed into a space the size of Manhattan. They have enormous magnetic fields that buzz and crackle with energy, and sometimes flares of X-rays and radio waves burst from them, according to McGill University astrophysicist Ziggy Pleunis, a co-author of the Canadian study. Astronomers say the bursts appear to be a frequent occurrence outside the Milky Way, but they have no idea how often they happen inside our galaxy. "We still don’t know how lucky we got," says Caltech radio astronomer Christopher Bochenek, who helped spot the burst.

(Read more astronomy stories.)

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