A McGill University PhD student has helped to bring the international astrophysics community one step closer to understanding a strange set of phenomena that have been arriving to Earth from the depths of outer space -fast radio bursts or FRB’s have been on the astronomical radar since first identified in 2007 by researchers at West Virginia University.
FRB’s are intense but brief in duration waves of energy that scientists have spottily detected over the past decade, with little in the way of clear understanding about their origin or purpose. So far, speculation on their source has run from collisions between black holes to bursts of energy from neutron stars and even to communication efforts from intelligent life in other galaxies.
But the recent discovery of a new set of FRB’s by Paul Scholz, doctoral student with the McGill University Space Institute, has helped to narrow down the field of possible explanations, specifically because the ten FRB’s Scholz observed all came from the same location in the sky and from the same distance away from Earth, implying that the source could not have been the cataclysmic death of a star or the one-off collision between black holes but rather a repeating phenomenon from one source.
“I got quite excited when I saw that and knew that it was a big step forward — a big deal — right away,” says Scholz.
Dr. Victoria Kaspi, physics professor and director of the Space Institute, calls it one of the rare-in-science true “eureka!” moments. Her team is now weighing other possible explanations such as FRB’s coming from a magnestar, a highly magnetised neutron star, or a giant pulse emission from extragalactic pulsars, rapidly spinning and tightly formed neutron stars. “The other possibility, which is kind of exciting, is that there are multiple classes of fast radio bursts,” says Scholz.
Dr. Kaspi is the 2016 winner of the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering and the first woman to have won the $1 million award handed out annually by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Dr. Kaspi’s own research focuses on pulsars.
Canadian researchers have been playing a significant role in the hunt for clues about the nature of FRB’s. Just last month a team from the University of British Columbia published a study in which they were able to use light spectroscopy to identify magnetic fields and dense gas surrounding the source of a particular FRB, information which hinted that the FRB’s came from events such as a star-forming nebula or supernova remnant.
A major source for information on FRB’s is data coming from the Parkes radio telescope observatory in New South Wales, Australia. It was there that the Lorimar Burst first occured in 2001 (but was only identified six years later). Since 2007, many other FRB’s have been identified through the Parkes data. According to Dr. Kaspi, it is theorized that up to 10,000 FRB’s are arriving to Earth every day.
The new findings were recently published in the journal Nature.