The nature of mysterious fast radio bursts on the verge of solving

One of the most striking cosmic phenomena are short but extremely powerful fast radio bursts. In a fraction of a second, these bursts can emit as much energy as the Sun emits in a year. These incredibly bright bursts of energy are believed to be associated with neutron stars with a powerful magnetic field, which are called magnetars. Magnetars are a type of neutron star, a dense core remaining after the collapse of a star with an extremely strong magnetic field.

Magnetar in the artist’s image. Source: ESO/L.Calçada

For a long time, this was just an assumption, but recently scientists have come close to solving the mystery of fast radio bursts. Using two separate telescopes, astronomers observed a rapid radio burst a few minutes before and after it occurred, and got a better idea of what caused these strange phenomena. Astronomers used NASA’s NICER telescope (Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer) on the International Space Station and NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) in low Earth orbit to observe a magnetar called SGR 1935+2154. In October 2022, this neutron star produced one of these bursts.

The first thing the researchers noticed was that the burst occurred through periods when the magnetar suddenly began to spin faster. These events are called glitches.

“Usually, when failures occur, it takes weeks or months for the magnetar to return to its normal speed. So clearly things are happening with these objects on much shorter time scales than we previously thought, and that could be related to how quickly the radio bursts are generated,” explained researcher Chin-Ping Hu from National Changhua University of Education in Taiwan.

Magnetars are considered to be one of the sources of origin of fast radio bursts.

Scientists are still not sure what exactly causes these powerful bursts in the behavior of magnetars, but it seems to be due to a combination of a strong magnetic field and strong gravity of objects. The cores of these objects are so dense that they can transition into a state of superfluid, which can come to the surface and escape from cracks caused by the acceleration of rotation. This can throw the material out with tremendous energy, as well as cause a slowdown in the rotation speed.

However, this is just a theory. The researchers say they need to continue observing other radio bursts to prove their hypothesis as a recognized fact.

Earlier, we reported on how the mysterious object shines 570 billion times stronger than the Sun.

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