In an announcement from last week, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Astronomers unveiled their discovery of an odd and mysterious heartbeat-esque radio signal that seems to be pulsating while flashing with “surprising regularity” from a galaxy that is an extremely long distance away from earth.
These astronomers have stated that this signal, which comes from a distant galaxy that is multiple billions of light-years away from earth, classifies as a fast radio burst, which usually consists of radio waves coming from an unknown astrophysical origin bursting intensely over the course of a few milliseconds. The difference in this case, however, is that the burst laster well over three seconds, which equates to being almost 1,000 longer than the average seen.
This particular discovery now easily sits as the record for the longest radio burst ever detected.
“There are not many things in the universe that emit strictly periodic signals,” explained one postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, Daniele Michilli. “Examples that we know of in our own galaxy are radio pulsars and magnetars, which rotate and produce a beamed emission similar to a lighthouse.”
Michilli likened the newly discovered signal to a normal beamed emission, but on steroids.
“Previously.” stated Michilli to KSBW, “we were not able to see these neutron stars emitting radio waves from other galaxies because they are not energetic enough.”
“They are not luminous enough,” he stated. “This is the first time where we may have detected a neutron star from so far away.”
Currently, scientists think a neutron star was the source of the emitted signal as it rotates like a lighthouse and pulses out these radio waves.
Researchers first found bursts of these types just 15 years ago. Since then, however, astronomers have found multiple hundreds of similar radio flashes throughout the universe, but they are by and far just “one-offs” that do not repeat.
One recent discovery highlighted a regular pattern of radio waves randomly transmitting out over four days and then would end up repeating every 16 days.
“It was unusual,” expressed Michilli. “Not only was it very long, lasting about three seconds, but there were periodic peaks that were remarkably precise, emitting every fraction of a second — boom, boom, boom — like a heartbeat.”
“This is the first time the signal itself is periodic,” he stated.
This new detection has spawned a bevy of new questions about what could end up causing such a signal, the likes of which have never before been witnessed.
It was reported by researchers that radio bursts in the past were detected within clouds with heavy turbulence while others had more clean environments. This most recent signal unveiled a cloud of plasma, which would indicate that it went through some quite extreme turbulence.
As scientists delve into this new discovery more thoroughly, the phenomenon has handed humankind yet another puzzle piece for the unlocking of the mysteries of the universe.
“Future telescopes promise to discover thousands of fast radio bursts a month, and at that point, we may find many more of these periodic signals,” concluded Michilli.