News Release

Cosmic flashes pinpointed to a surprising location in space

Peer-Reviewed Publication

West Virginia University

Astronomers have been surprised by the closest source of the mysterious flashes in the sky known as fast radio bursts. Precision measurements with radio telescopes reveal that the bursts are made among old stars, and in a way that no one was expecting. The source of the flashes, in nearby spiral galaxy M 81, is the closest of its kind to Earth.

Fast radio bursts are extremely short flashes of light from space. Astronomers have struggled to understand them ever since they were first discovered in 2007, by West Virginia University professors Maura McLaughlin and Duncan Lorimer along with Lorimer’s student, David Narkevic. So far, they have only ever been seen by radio telescopes. Each flash lasts only thousandths of a second. Yet each one sends out as much energy as the Sun produces in an entire day. Several hundred flashes go off every day, and they have been seen all over the sky. Most lie at huge distances from Earth, in galaxies billions of light years away.

An international team of astronomers present observations that take scientists a step closer to solving the mystery – while also raising new puzzles. The team is led jointly by Franz Kirsten (Chalmers, Sweden, and ASTRON, Netherlands) and Kenzie Nimmo (ASTRON and University of Amsterdam).

Dr. Fonseca, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, was a key collaborator as a member of the Canadian Hydrogen 

West Virginia University professors, Emmanuel Fonseca and Sarah Burke-Spolaor were collaborators in the study published this week in both the journals Nature and Nature Astronomy. 

Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) FRB project, where they initially made the discovery of this repeating burst source, named FRB 20200120E.  Fonseca and the CHIME/FRB team made the first inference that the source resides in the M81 galaxy. 

Dr. Burke-Spolaor, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, along with graduate students Reshma Thomas and Kshitij Aggarwal, were also collaborators on the study as members of the Realfast team that searched this location for FRBs. The Realfast detector allowed their team to perform deep radio imaging of the field to look for any lingering radio emission.

Fonseca, Burke-Spolaor, Thomas and Aggarwal are also members of the Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology; a research Center where high impact study of fast radio bursts is a central area of research.

The scientists set out to make high-precision measurements of a repeating burst source discovered in January 2020 in the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. “We wanted to look for clues to the bursts’ origins. Using many radio telescopes together, we knew we could pinpoint the source’s location on the sky with extreme precision. That gives the opportunity to see what the local neighborhood of a fast radio burst looks like,” says Franz Kirsten.

To study the source at the highest possible resolution and sensitivity, the scientists combined measurements from telescopes in the European VLBI Network (EVN). By combining data from 12 dish antennas spread across half the globe, Sweden, Latvia, The Netherlands, Russia, Germany, Poland, Italy and China, they were able to find out exactly where on the sky they were coming from. The EVN measurements were complemented with data from several other telescopes, among them the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, USA, which is the instrument on which Realfast operates.

Close but surprising location

When they analyzed their measurements, the astronomers discovered that the repeated radio flashes were coming from somewhere no one had expected.

They traced the bursts to the outskirts of the nearby spiral galaxy Messier 81 (M 81), about 12 million light years away. That makes this the closest ever detection of a source of fast radio bursts. There was another surprise in store. The location matched exactly with a dense cluster of very old stars, known as a globular cluster.

“It’s amazing to find fast radio bursts from a globular cluster. This is a place in space where you only find old stars. Further out in the universe, fast radio bursts have been found in places where stars are much younger. This had to be something else,” says Kenzie Nimmo.

Many fast radio bursts have been found surrounded by young, massive stars, much bigger than the Sun. In those locations, star explosions are common and leave behind highly magnetised remnants. Scientists have come to believe that fast radio bursts can be created in objects known as magnetars.

Magnetars are the extremely dense remnants of stars that have exploded. And they are the universe’s most powerful known magnets.

The scientists believe that the source of the radio flashes is something that has been predicted, but never seen before: a magnetar that formed when a white dwarf became massive enough to collapse under its own weight. “Strange things happen in the multi-billion-year life of a tight cluster of stars. Here we think we’re seeing a star with an unusual story,” explains Franz Kirsten. Given time, ordinary stars like the Sun grow old and transform into small, dense, bright objects called white dwarfs. Many stars in the cluster live together in binary systems. Of the tens of thousands of stars in the cluster, a few get close enough for one star to collect material from the other. That can lead to a scenario known as “accretion-induced collapse,” Kirsten explains. “If one of the white dwarfs can catch enough extra mass from its companion, it can turn into an even denser star, known as a neutron star. That’s a rare occurrence, but in a cluster of ancient stars, it’s the simplest way of making fast radio bursts,” says team member Mohit Bhardwaj, McGill University, Canada.

Fastest ever

Looking for further clues by zooming into their data, the astronomers found another surprise. Some of the flashes were even shorter than they had expected.

Similarly lightning-fast signals have been seen from one of the sky’s most famous objects, the Crab pulsar. It is a tiny, dense, remnant of a supernova explosion that was seen from Earth in 1054 CE in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull. Both magnetars and pulsars are different kinds of neutron stars: super-dense objects with the mass of the Sun in a volume the size of a city, and with strong magnetic fields.

According to Burke-Spolaor, “Almost every new set of FRB discoveries brings something unexpected, so it is clear that we are still working out the "rules" that FRBs follow.”  

The area of study around fast radio bursts remains a fast moving game with the rules constantly changing. Burke-Spolaor explains “with an observation like this, we’ve found an FRB in a specific environment, where specific types of stars interact in well-studied ways.  In the world of FRBs, this type of result adds simple but precise rules about what could be making this FRB source.” 

“The discovery only makes it clearer that pinpointing the locations and host galaxies of FRBs is crucial,” Fonseca explains. “Teams like the VLA's realfast and the EVN's PRECISE are enabling the next great leaps in FRB astrophysics by finding FRBs in all sorts of unexpected places.”Future observations of this system and others will help to tell whether the source really is an unusual magnetar, or something else, like an unusual pulsar or a black hole and a dense star in a close orbit. “These fast radio bursts seem to be giving us new and unexpected insight into how stars live and die. If that’s true, they could, like supernovae, have things to tell us about stars and their lives across the whole universe,” says Franz Kirsten.

The research is published in two papers in the journals Nature and Nature Astronomy.

A repeating fast radio burst source in a globular cluster, by Franz Kirsten et al
( available on ArXiv)

Burst timescales and luminosities link young pulsars and fast radio bursts, by Kenzie Nimmo et al ( available on ArXiv).

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