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Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts May Have Starquake Origins

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Scientists are likely closer to knowing the origins of short blasts of cosmic radio waves that have baffled them since almost a decade earlier.

New research sheds light on these mysterious pulses called fast radio bursts (FRBs), which probably originated from a highly magnetized region of space and linked to a recent supernova. The blast was recorded by the Green Bank Telescope of the National Science Foundation, which offered more than 650 hours of data.

Astronomer Kiyoshi Masui from the University of British Columbia said that the energy from the newly identified FRB 110523 went through a dense and magnetized region shortly following its formation.

“This significantly narrows down the source's environment and type of event that triggered the burst," he said in a release.

FRBs last only a fraction of a second yet pack staggering amounts of energy. They appear to hail randomly from the sky and are believed to strike the universe by the thousands every day.

One challenge in analyzing data is that a rapid, sharp FRB signal becomes “smeared out” in frequency by its space journey. The radio signal smearing is referred to as dispersion delay. In the research, the dispersion measure estimated that the radio blast came from as far as 6 billion light-years away.

Masui and his team’s new highly specialized software reduced the time for data analysis through countering dispersion, which masks an FRB’s presence within archival radio data. An initial pass of the data yielded over 6,000 potential FRBs, which were individually appraised until FRB 110523 remained.

The FRBs are suspected to be caused by flaring magnetars – young spinning neutron stars from the death of large stars – that might also be emitting radio waves. Magnetars are considered among the most potent sources of high-energy radiation received by Earth.

The team’s work is deemed solid by astronomers like Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

“It’s amazing what they got out of such a small amount of data. If these things are really coming from outside of our galaxy, they’re just mindboggling – we just don’t understand them,” he said.

The team pulled crucial information from two of the 16 known FRBs today, but they provided good development for scientists seeking the signals’ origin, especially with the advent of a new generation of telescopes.

Astronomer Duncan Lorimer, who in 2007 discovered the first FRB, said it was very exciting news. “We are definitely moving further forward to solving the mystery,” he said.

The results are published in the journal Nature.

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