Something keeps exploding in space and astronomers have no idea what it is
After seeing a bizarre space object repeatedly explode more than 1,600 times in a fairly short period of time, astronomers still don’t know what it really is.
The object is the source of a rapid radio burst (FRB), a strange spatial phenomenon that was only discovered in 2007 and of which very little is known.
There are still a few models. Most appear to release their energy all at once, while a few have been observed releasing bursts of energy multiple times.
One of these FRBs is an object called FRB 121102 located in a dwarf galaxy about 3 billion light years away from us. Using the Chinese Five Hundred Meter Aperture Radio Telescope (FAST), astronomers studied FRB 121102 for a while to try and simply collect data about it.
“Initially it was just stamp collecting,” said Bing Zhang, an astrophysicist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, in a statement to our colleagues at Live Science.
After watching FRB 121102 for about 60 hours, researchers saw it explode 1,652 times, with its fastest rate being about one explosion every 30 seconds.
FRBs are difficult to study, in large part because they have almost always been found outside of our galaxy and generally at a considerable distance, even in universal terms. In 2020, however, an FRB was found in our own galaxy and scientists were able to identify it as a magnetar, which is a special type of stellar corpse known as a neutron star.
It is too early to tell if all FRBs are magnetars or if magnetars are only one possible source of FRB. We also don’t know how magnetars give rise to an FRB, so it’s hard to know what to look for in FRB 121102.
Zhang was able to rule out the gases and dust surrounding the source as the cause, as the rapid succession of explosions did not give these types of materials enough time to collect in sufficient quantity to fuel the next explosion.
Analysis: everyone, especially scientists, loves a good mystery
Most space objects are fascinating in themselves, although we are learning more and more about them … because there is always more to learn about them.
But FRBs are particularly exciting because they are a rare mystery in science as we know next to nothing about them. They are also a relatively new discovery, so there are a lot of new research opportunities to study them.
We don’t know what causes them beyond knowing that a magnetar strength be at the origin of the phenomenon, but it is difficult to understand what could cause a magnetar of more than 1,600 to explode during a typical weekend.
The mystery is exciting, and with the release of new instruments like FAST that are even better at finding new radio signals and other previously unreachable wavelengths of light, we hope there will be even more mysteries. to discover … and potentially solve.