Astronomers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have picked up a strange ‘pulsing’ signal from billions of light years away.
These strange, regularly emitting signals are classified as fast radio bursts (FRBs), which are defined as very powerful bursts of radio waves of unknown astrophysical origin, and usually lasting a few milliseconds at most.
However, this new signal lasted up to three seconds, about 1,000 times longer than the average FRB. In this case, MIT astronomers in collaboration with researchers from several universities in Canada and the United States (US) detected bursts of radio waves that repeated every 0.2 seconds in a clear periodic pattern, similar to a heartbeat.
The researchers labeled this signal as FRB 20191221A, and is currently named the FRB of the longest and with the clearest periodic pattern ever detected, as quoted by the MIT website.
The researchers say the source of the signal lies in a galaxy far away, a few billion light years from Earth. However, the exact source of this pulsed signal remains a mystery.
Astronomers suspect the signal could come from a radio pulsar or a magnetar. Both are a type of neutron star, or the core of a giant star that is very dense and rapidly rotating.
“There’s not much in the universe that emits dense periodic signals,” said Daniele Michilli, a postdoc at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.
“The examples we know of in our own galaxy are radio pulsars and magnetars, which spin and produce beams similar to lighthouses. And we think this new signal could be a magnetar or a pulsar on steroids.”
Furthermore, the researchers hope to detect other signals from this signal source, which can then be used as an astrophysical clock. That is, the frequency of the beams and how they change as the source moves away from Earth can be used to measure the rate at which the universe is expanding.
The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Nature, and were written by members of the CHIME/FRB Collaboration, which includes MIT researchers such as Calvin Leung, Juan Mena-Parra, Kaitlyn Shin, and Kiyoshi Masui. In addition, there is also Michilli who initially became a researcher at McGill University, but later continued his post-doctoral degree at MIT.