Rotation of fast radio burst reveals origins of the cosmic blast

Lasting just a few milliseconds, a single pulse generates as much energy as our sun produces in a day.
By Brooks Hays  |  Jan. 10, 2018 at 3:52 PM
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Jan. 10 (UPI) -- By analyzing the unique rotation of FRB 121102, a fast radio burst discovered by Cornell astronomers, scientists have been able to study the nature of its cosmic origin.

While studying the giant pulse of radio waves, researchers realized the waves gyrate, or "twist and shout," as they pass through a veil of magnetized plasma. The twists represent what's called Faraday rotation, while the shouts describe the bursts.

By measuring these two phenomena, scientists can better understand the cosmic conditions that inspired the massive pulse of radio waves.

"It's remote sensing from 3 billion light years away," Cornell astronomer James Cordes said in a news release. "These new measurements allow us to be much more specific about the immediate surroundings of the source."

The first fast radio burst, Lorimer Burst FRB 010724, was described in 2007. It was found among archival data recorded by the Parkes Observatory in 2001. Since then, dozens of FRBs have been discovered.

But FRB 121102 is unique. Its twisting is 500 times greater than all other recorded fast radio bursts. The FRB's extreme twisting suggests it passed through an especially strong magnetic field produced by a dense veil of plasma.

The discovery -- described this week in the journal Nature -- suggests the source of FRB 121102 is located near a supermassive black hole or young neutron star.

"We estimate the magnetic field and gas density surrounding the blast source, and we can link them, for example, with a model involving a young magnetar -- a neutron star with an especially large magnetic field -- to the central engine that produces the bursts," Cordes said.

Initially discovered in 2014 using data observed in 2012, scientists have since measured repeated pulses originating from FRB 121102. In addition to its unique reputation, the FRB source is also uniquely powerful. Lasting just a few milliseconds, a single pulse generates as much energy as our sun produces in a day.

"This is exotic. If we had one of these on the other side of our own galaxy -- the Milky Way -- it would disrupt radio here on Earth, and we'd notice, as it would saturate the signal levels on our smartphones," researcher Shami Chatterjee said. "Whatever is happening there is scary. We would not want to be there."

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