Astronomers Are Close to Solving a Major Cosmic Conundrum

For years, scientists have tried to figure out the origins of fast radio bursts.

Shot from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. NASA.
ESA/Hubble & NASA

Since 2007, astronomers have tried to figure out the origins of fast radio bursts. That year, astrophysicists at West Virginia University were reviewing archival data at the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. They found that the telescope had detected a powerful flash of radio waves that lasted less than five milliseconds. It also appeared that the signal had traveled a huge distance — about three billion light-years — to Earth. They correctly assumed it would open up a whole new field of research. Since then, scientists have detected about 30 fast radio bursts coming from all directions. They estimate the bursts occur about 10,000 times a day across the sky. They have been tracking one, in particular, the FRB 121102, first detected in 2012. It has racked up more than 150 detected bursts. The repeated nature of FRB 121102 changed all previous thoughts about FRBs. Now, a new discovery changes the field again. The team detected and studied 16 pulses from FRB 121102, writes The Atlantic, and found that the radio waves were highly polarized and when they arrived on Earth, they became twisted and the propagated through strong magnetic fields. This can tell scientists about the material the radio waves passed through. “The more powerful the magnetic field is, the more severe the twisting becomes as radio waves move through it,” writes The Atlantic, and scientists have only seen such dramatic twisting at the center of our galaxy, where a supermassive black hole exists.

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