Immense set of mysterious fast radio bursts detected from one source in deep space

An international team of astronomers recently observed more than 1,650 fast radio bursts (FRBs) detected from one source in deep space, which amounts to the largest set — by far — of the mysterious phenomena ever recorded.

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More than a decade after the discovery of FRBs, astronomers are still baffled by the origins of the millisecond-long, cosmic explosions that each produce the energy equivalent to the sun’s annual output.

In a study published in the Oct. 13 issue of the journal Nature, scientists — including UNLV astrophysicist Bing Zhang — report on the discovery of a total of 1,652 independent FRBs from one source over the course of 47 days in 2019. The source, dubbed FRB 121102, was observed using the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China, and represents more FRBs in one event than all previous reported occurrences combined.

“This was the first time that one FRB source was studied in such great detail,” said Zhang, one of the study’s corresponding authors. “The large burst set helped our team home in like never before on the characteristic energy and energy distribution of FRBs, which sheds new light on the engine that powers these mysterious phenomena.”

Since FRBs were first discovered in 2007, astronomers worldwide have turned to powerful radio telescopes like FAST to trace the bursts and to look for clues on where they come from and how they’re produced. The source that powers most FRBs is widely believed to be magnetars, incredibly dense, city-sized neutron stars that possess the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. And while scientists are gaining greater clarity on what produces FRBs, the exact location of where they occur is still a mystery.

A mystery that recent results may be starting to unravel.

According to Zhang, there are two active models for where FRBs come from. One could be that they come from magnetospheres, or within a magnetar’s strong magnetic field. Another theory is that FRBs form from relativistic shocks outside the magnetosphere traveling the speed of light.

“These results pose great challenges to the latter model,” says Zhang. “The bursts are too frequent and — given that this episode alone amounts to 3.8% of the energy available from a magnetar — it adds up to too much energy for the second model to work.”

The bursts were measured by FAST within a total of 59.5 hours over 47 days from Aug. 29 to Oct. 29, 2019.

“During its most active phase, FRB 121102 included 122 bursts measured within a one-hour period, the highest repeat rate ever observed for any FRB,” said Pei Wang, one of the article’s lead authors from the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC).

Researchers expect that FAST will continue to systematically investigate a large number of repeating FRBs in the future.

“As the world’s largest antenna, FAST’s sensitivity proves to be conducive to revealing intricacies of cosmic transients, including FRBs,” said Di Li, the study’s lead researcher from NAOC.

The study includes more than 30 co-authors from 16 institutions in four countries and is part of a long-running collaboration among the institutions. In addition to UNLV and NAOC, collaborating institutions include Guizhou Normal University, Cornell University, Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, West Virginia University, CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, University of California Berkeley, and Nanjing University.