Cosmic Puzzle Cracked? NASA Telescopes Unlock Secrets Of Deep Space Bursts

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Researchers using two of NASA’s X-ray telescopes may be well on their way to possibly cracking a cosmic puzzle surrounding mysterious bursts of radio waves. The observations used for the new study were from a dead star’s “erratic” behavior as it produced a “bright, brief burst of radio waves.”

NASA says that while these fast radio bursts (FRBs) only last for a fraction of a second, they can release nearly as much energy as the Sun does in an entire year. Due to how brief these bursts are, the space agency remarked it can be extremely difficult to pinpoint where the source originated outside of the Milky Way. However, in 2020, researchers were able to detect and pinpoint where a series of FRBs originated. The source of those FRBs, and another set in 2022, were determined to come from a magnetar called SGR 1935+2154 (SGR 1935 for short).

Following the 2020 event, Chris Bochenek, a doctoral student at the time in astrophysics at Caltech, remarked, “While there may still be exciting twists in the story of FRBs in the future, for me, right now, I think it’s fair to say that most FRBs come from magnetars until proven otherwise.”

The 2022 burst appeared to happen between two “glitches,” when a magnetar suddenly starts spinning faster. The researchers of the new study were surprised to see that in between the glitches, the magnetar slowed down to less than its pre-glitch speed in about nine hours, or as NASA remarked, “about 100 times more rapidly than has ever been observed in a magnetar.”

“Typically, when glitches happen, it takes the magnetar weeks or months to get back to its normal speed,” explained Chin-Ping Hu, an astrophysicist at the National Changhua University of Education in Taiwan and lead author of the new study. “So clearly things are happening with these objects on much shorter time scales than we previously thought, and that might be related to how fast radio bursts are generated.”

The researchers pointed out that the X-ray bursts that happened before the glitch should have had, in principle, enough energy to create a fast radio burst, but didn’t. However, something must have changed during the slowdown period that produced the “right set of conditions” to succeed.

George Younes, a researcher at Goddard and a member of the NICER science team specializing in magnetars, remarked about the magnetar observations, “We’ve unquestionably observed something important for our understanding of fast radio bursts. But I think we still need a lot more data to complete the mystery.”