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13th Jul 2022

Scientists have found a ‘heartbeat’ signal coming from a distant galaxy

April Curtin

New research suggests that magnetars are the source of mysterious fast radio bursts from distant galaxies. (Image credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF)

It could tell us some important information about the universe

Astronomers have discovered an unusual, long-lasting radio signal coming from a galaxy faraway – and it could tell us more about how the universe is expanding.

The mysterious burst of radio energy is flashing in a pattern which scientists say is similar to a heartbeat. The Fast Radio Burst (FRB) is lasting 1,000 times longer than similar events and flashing in the clearest periodic pattern ever discovered.

FRBs are strong bursts of radio waves from galaxies billions of light-years away. They normally last just a few milliseconds before blinking out and are one-off events, but this one is lasting up to three seconds.

Daniele Michilli, a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, described it as “unusual”.

He said: “Not only was it very long, lasting about three seconds, but there were periodic peaks that were remarkably precise, emitting every fraction of a second – boom, boom, boom – like a heartbeat.

“This is the first time the signal itself is periodic.”

The source of this blast remains unknown – all scientists know is that it lies in a faraway galaxy located somewhere several billion light years away from planet Earth. It is thought that it could come from a radio pulsar or a magnetar, which are both types of neutron stars. These are dense, spinning collapsed cores of giant stars.

What’s more, is that FRB 20191221A could be used as an ‘astrophysical clock’, meaning scientists can use it to analyse at what rate the universe is expanding.

Researchers from the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), the team behind the discovery, will attempt to identify more bursts from the same source, which could help confirm what is causing these FRBs.

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