Mysterious Radio Waves from Deeper Space Baffle Astronomers

An artist impression of a Fast Radio Burst reaching Earth. The colors represent the burst arriving at different radio wavelengths, with long wavelengths (red) arriving seconds after short wavelengths (blue). CREDIT: Jingchuan Yu, Beijing Planetarium.

Astronomers have been puzzled to locate the origin of a Fast Radio Burst (FRB), dubbed FRB 110523, that could have been no more than six billion light years from Earth.

These radio signals could have emerged from a highly magnetized, gas-filled region of space, providing a new hint in the decade-long mystery over radio pulses received from inner space.

“We now know that the energy from this particular burst passed through a dense magnetized field shortly after it formed,” says Kiyoshi Masui, an astronomer with the University of British Columbia in Canada and lead author of the new findings published today in Nature.

He said the source of the pulse likely resides within a star-forming nebula or the remnant of a supernova. What appear as a short flashes of radio waves to telescopes on Earth, these FRBs were detected 10 years ago and so far 16 of them have been recorded, though scientists believe thousands of them could be there.

Only two things could leave such an imprint on the signal: a nebula surrounding the source or a galactic centre, said researchers.

Using data-mining software developed by Masui and Jonathan Sievers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, astronomers were able to find bursts more quickly with help from a team led by Hsiu-Hsien Lin from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

As they sifted through the detailed data, the researchers discovered that the FRB exhibited Faraday rotation, a corkscrew-like twist radio waves acquire by passing through a powerful magnetic field.

Additional analysis of the signal revealed that it also passed through two distinct regions of ionized gas, called screens, on its way to Earth. “We also have an exciting new tool to search through otherwise overwhelming archival data to uncover more examples and get closer to truly understanding their nature,” said Masui, who was earlier Global Scholar with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

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