Scientists have traced down the source of several mysterious fast radio bursts

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Thanks to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, researchers have tracked down the origins of several mysterious fast radio bursts (FRBS) to five distant galaxies.   

In total, the locations of eight FRBs — intense flashes of energy found in various parts of the sky that last just a few milliseconds — were traced by researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

These galaxies with spiral-shaped arms are in deep space, ranging between 400 million and 9 billion light-years away. One light-year is approximately 6 trillion miles.

The researchers were able to find the FRBs, thanks to the ultraviolet and near-infrared light spotted by the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. They pinpointed five of the FRBs exact locations, however three remain inconclusive.

The findings, which are slated to be published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal and can be read on the arXiv repository, surprised the researchers because most times, they are not even sure where to begin their search.

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‘Our results are new and exciting,’ the study’s lead author, Alexandra Mannings said in a statement. ‘This is the first high-resolution view of a population of FRBs, and Hubble reveals that five of them are localized near or on a galaxy’s spiral arms.’

Mannings continued: ‘Most of the galaxies are massive, relatively young, and still forming stars. The imaging allows us to get a better idea of the overall host-galaxy properties, such as its mass and star-formation rate, as well as probe what’s happening right at the FRB position because Hubble has such great resolution.’ 

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope tracked down the origins of several fast radio bursts to galaxies ranging between 400 million and 9 billion light-years from Earth in 'spiral galaxies'

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope tracked down the origins of several fast radio bursts to galaxies ranging between 400 million and 9 billion light-years from Earth in ‘spiral galaxies’

FRBs can give off as much energy in one-thousandth of a second as the sun does the entire year, the official NASA Hubble Twitter account tweeted

FRBs can give off as much energy in one-thousandth of a second as the sun does the entire year, the official NASA Hubble Twitter account tweeted

The cause of FRBS, which can generate as much energy as 500 million suns in only a few milliseconds, have continued to evade scientists

The cause of FRBS, which can generate as much energy as 500 million suns in only a few milliseconds, have continued to evade scientists

 The ultraviolet light traces the glow of young stars around the galaxy’s ‘winding arms,’ NASA noted, allowing Hubble to pinpoint on the location of the FRBs.

The Hubble findings also back up previous ideas that FRBs have originated from magnetars, which are neutron stars with magnetic fields.

These stars have magnets that are ’10 trillion times more powerful’ than the average refrigerator magnet, making them the most powerful magnet in the universe.

‘Owing to their strong magnetic fields, magnetars are quite unpredictable,’ Fong explained. ‘In this case, the FRBs are thought to come from flares from a young magnetar. Massive stars go through stellar evolution and becomes neutron stars, some of which can be strongly magnetized, leading to flares and magnetic processes on their surfaces, which can emit radio light. Our study fits in with that picture and rules out either very young or very old progenitors for FRBs.’ 

Able to generate as much energy in one-thousandth of a second as the Sun does in an entire year, the cause of FRBS have continued to evade scientists.

Their short duration makes them exceedingly difficult to track and study, but the recent Hubble observations, which increased the resolution of the images, was able to provide additional context.

‘This technique has worked very well for identifying the progenitors of other types of transients, such as supernovae and gamma-ray bursts,’ study co-author and Northwestern University assistant professor Wen-fai Fong of Northwestern University said in the release. ‘Hubble played a big role in those studies, too.’  

An artist's animation of what a fast radio burst looks like as seen in deep space

An artist’s animation of what a fast radio burst looks like as seen in deep space

The Milky Way is also considered a spiral galaxy, among the most common types of galaxies. 

At present, scientists still do not know how frequently FRBs appear and why some repeat and others don’t.

Nearly 1,000 FRBs have been discovered since the first one was spotted by the Parkes radio observatory in July 2001.

It wasn’t until 2007 however, that researchers accurately described the first FRB, known as Lorimer Burst FRB 010724. 

Since then, researchers have only been able to identify the origins of 15 of them, leaving many more beyond the current understandings of scientists.

A small group of scientists have speculated that some FRBs could be signs of extraterrestrial civilization, but the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) said in 2019 that did not seem plausible.

‘There are some who suggest that the FRBs might be alien signals, but that really doesn’t make sense,’ the organization wrote in a blog post. ‘The sources are spread all over intergalactic space, and arranging cooperative alien behavior when even one-way communication takes many billions of years seems unlikely — to put it gently.’

FAST RADIO BURSTS ARE BRIEF RADIO EMISSIONS FROM SPACE WHOSE ORIGIN IS UNKNOWN

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are radio emissions that appear temporarily and randomly, making them not only hard to find, but also hard to study.

The mystery stems from the fact it is not known what could produce such a short and sharp burst.

This has led some to speculate they could be anything from stars colliding to artificially created messages.

Scientists searching for fast radio bursts (FRBs) that some believe may be signals sent from aliens may be happening every second. The blue points in this artist's impression of the  filamentary structure of galaxies that extends across the entire sky are signals from FRBs

Scientists searching for fast radio bursts (FRBs) that some believe may be signals sent from aliens may be happening every second. The blue points in this artist’s impression of the filamentary structure of galaxies are signals from FRBs

The first FRB was spotted, or rather ‘heard’ by radio telescopes, back in 2001 but wasn’t discovered until 2007 when scientists were analysing archival data.

But it was so temporary and seemingly random that it took years for astronomers to agree it wasn’t a glitch in one of the telescope’s instruments. 

Researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics point out that FRBs can be used to study the structure and evolution of the universe whether or not their origin is fully understood.

A large population of faraway FRBs could act as probes of material across gigantic distances. 

This intervening material blurs the signal from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the left over radiation from the Big Bang. 

A careful study of this intervening material should give an improved understanding of basic cosmic constituents, such as the relative amounts of ordinary matter, dark matter and dark energy, which affect how rapidly the universe is expanding.

FRBs can also be used to trace what broke down the ‘fog’ of hydrogen atoms that pervaded the early universe into free electrons and protons, when temperatures cooled down after the Big Bang. 

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