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Fast Radio Bursts

February 12, 2014

If you’re driving across a flat landscape at night, and you see a light shining in the distance, it’s hard to tell just what it is — it could be anything from a flashlight to a spotlight. Until you can judge its distance, its true nature remains a mystery.

That’s a problem that astronomers face all the time. They see bright, mysterious lights, but until they can judge the distance, they don’t know what they’re looking at.

One example is gamma-ray bursts — outbursts of energy that last just a few seconds. At first, astronomers couldn’t tell whether they were inside or outside our own galaxy. The bursts turned out to be far outside the Milky Way, making them the most brilliant objects in the universe.

A similar mystery surrounds objects known as “fast radio bursts,” which last just a few thousandths of a second. Only six have been seen.

If they come from outside the Milky Way, they’re extremely bright. Just what could drive such an outburst is unknown.

But a recent study says the outbursts come from inside the galaxy, making them much fainter. A team found a pair of stars at the location of one of the radio bursts. The stars are so close together that they share their outer layers of gas. Magnetic outbursts could zap clumps of electrons in the stars’ outer atmosphere, creating a burst of radio waves.

Astronomers are looking for more of these events to help lock down the distance — and solve the mystery of fast radio bursts.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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