Scientists trace mysterious radio waves to a small, faraway galaxy

Artist's impression of FRB 121102 Danielle Futselaar

Artist's impression of FRB 121102 Danielle Futselaar

"Near this position, astronomers found both steady radio and optical sources, which pointed the way to the galaxy hosting the FRB", said Shami Chatterjee, the first author of the study.

Until now, astronomers hadn't even been able to determine with certainty whether FRBs come from within our galaxy or beyond.

These cosmic flashes only last about a fraction of a 1 second, but in that time, they can release the total amount of energy that our Sun will irradiate in the next 10,000 years. But while those explanations may fit an ordinary FRB, FRB 121102 is repeating, and that brings a new wrinkle into the equation. Apparently, the dwarf galaxy may have fewer stars than the Milky Way, but it's forming new neutron stars quickly. Thus, if the FRB is located in a galaxy, it's probably not a bright galaxy with a lot of star formation, or it would be easy to see. It was on 4 January, that the scientists at the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii concluded that the waves were coming from a very faint dwarf galaxy, which is 2.5 billion light years away.

"We have detected dozens of radio bursts with Arecibo, the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and now the Very Large Array and the Effelsberg Telescope in Germany", McLaughlin said.

The recurrence of that particular burst, labeled FRB 121102, nine times over six months a year ago led scientists to the dwarf galaxy. Discovered in November 2012 and dubbed FRB 121102, it's recurred several times - stoking the notion that whatever was producing it was operating on a recurring cycle.

They're one of the most persistent puzzles in modern astronomy. After a period of six months that included 83 hours-worth of observations, the team managed to capture nine images of FRB 121102.

"We've joked about spaceship battles and death stars blowing up, but we think we can explain it with ordinary physics", Chatterjee said.

Their brevity, combined with the fact that it's hard to pinpoint their location, have ensured their origins remain enigmatic.

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However, Dr. Chatterjee said, "But one had to be the first to be pinned down", which happens to be the FRB 121101.

The results of these studies will appear in three separate papers on January 5 - one in the journal Nature and two in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Astronomers used the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the European Very Large Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) network, to help narrow the origin.

That need could be filled later this year when a new radio telescope comes online in British Columbia, Canada, dedicated to hunting fast radio bursts.

Gemini composite image of the field around FRB 121102 (indicated). "One would generally expect most FRBs to come from large galaxies which have the largest numbers of stars and neutron stars - remnants of massive stars. This discovery may hint at links between FRBs and those two kinds of events".

Scientists believe that the bursts and the source are likely to be either the same object or somehow physically associated with each other.

Alternatively, we could be receiving evidence of local FRBs and dismissing them as interference caused by things like cell phones, satellites, and radar, which would mean the phenomenon is ongoing.

For some reason, FRBs never seem to repeat, and, as a result, most theories about the origin of these mysterious pulses involve invoking cataclysmic incidents that destroy their source, for instance, a star exploding in a supernova, or a neutron star collapsing into a black hole.

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