Scientists detect mysterious radio pulse from deep space. What is it?

The scientific explanation is that it's a radio signal from 6 billion light years away, possibly coming from a supernova or a forming star.

Jingchuan Yu, Beijing Planetarium
An artist's rendering 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).

Using new software that can quickly sort through reams of data, astronomers recently uncovered more clues about the mysterious origin of Fast Radio Bursts, or quick pulses of radio waves that seem to come from beyond our galaxy.

Though the recent findings from dozens of scientists from the US, Canada, China, India, and South Africa might disappoint those waiting for news of alien transmissions, for now they offer a more practical explanation for these extragalactic radio flashes that have baffled scientists since they were first discovered nearly a decade ago.

Astronomers now believe the radio bursts originated from an exploding star, or from inside the gas cloud surrounding a growing star, some six billion light years from Earth. This possible emission is the 16th such burst that scientists have observed, with the first one discovered only in 2007 by West Virginia University astronomer Duncan Lorimer.

Scientists believe there could be thousands of them a day, but are still trying to determine how and where they’re produced. Some theories have included, according to National Geographic, that they come from evaporating black holes, colliding dense objects or flaring dead stars.

“If these things are really coming from outside of our galaxy, they’re just mind boggling – we just don’t understand them,” astronomer Scott Ransom of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia told National Geographic.

But we understand them a little better now. These short flashes of radio waves likely originated inside a heavily magnetized region of space, say researchers in a paper published on December 2 in the journal Nature, and traveled through two gas clouds before being recorded by the West Virginia observatory’s Green Bank Telescope.

"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 paper, in an announcement. "This significantly narrows down the source's environment and type of event that triggered the burst."

The paper's authors developed software to sift through 650 hours of observations recorded by the telescope. This helped them to find bursts quickly inside the data.

"Hidden within an incredibly massive dataset, we found a very peculiar signal that matched all the known characterizes of a Fast Radio Burst, but with a tantalizing extra element that we simply have never seen before," says Jeffrey Peterson, a physics professor at Carnegie Mellon University and paper co-author, in an announcement.

What they saw was that the radio signal was tightly twisted, like a corkscrew, which suggested to them that it must have passed through a powerful magnetic field outside of our galaxy, since nothing in the Milky Way is strong enough to warp a radio wave to such a degree, according to National Geographic.

Their analysis also showed that that the signal passed through two different regions of ionized gas, the locations of which astronomers were able to identify, helping them find the burst’s source.

"Taken together, these remarkable data reveal more about a [fast radio burst] than we have ever seen before and give us important constraints on these mysterious events," says Dr. Masui.

He says the new data-analyzing software will help astronomers find more bursts and dig up additional clues to what causes them.

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