Discovery of a fast radio burst that pulses at regular intervals

New finding could help explain phenomenon behind mysterious bursts of energy from space
Published: 17 June 2020

A Canadian-led team of astronomers, including researchers from McGill University, has discovered that a repeating fast radio burst (FRB) originating from a nearby galaxy pulses at regular intervals.

Researchers within the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) Fast Radio Burst Collaboration used the CHIME telescope in British Columbia to show that the repeating radio source known as FRB 180916.J0158+65 – first discovered in 2018 by the same group - pulsates apparently every 16.35 days.

The findings, described today in a study published in Nature, are the first to demonstrate that repeating FRBs can burst predictably.

“Confronted with the regularity, we all went silent in surprise at first, but we very quickly realized the new opportunities for catching the source in action. We already knew where to look for bursts, but now we also know when to look for them,” says Ziggy Pleunis, a PhD student under the supervision of Victoria Kaspi in McGill’s Department of Physics and the McGill Space Institute, and one of the key researchers within the CHIME/FRB collaboration.

FRBs were first discovered over a decade ago. First thought to be singular events, astronomers have since discovered that some of these high-intensity blasts of radio emissions – more intense than the energy generated by the Sun over many years – in fact repeat.

Though the explanation for the mysterious phenomenon remains elusive, the new study is yet another step towards determining what might be causing FRBs.

“While this discovery rules out models which suggest that bursts are emitted sporadically, lots of interesting models still survive. One of the most promising possibilities is two stars orbiting around each other with one of them being a neutron star, a remnant of a massive star that undergoes a supernova explosion,” says Pragya Chawla, also a PhD student within Professor Kaspi’s group.

Earlier this year, astronomers in Europe, in partnership with the CHIME/FRB Collaboration, were able to pinpoint FRB 180916 to a nearby galaxy located at 500 million light years away from Earth. Astronomers worldwide are now studying the source with a variety of telescopes, in the hopes of explaining the repetition.

PHOTO: The CHIME telescope incorporates four 100-metre long U-shaped cylinders of metal mesh that resemble snowboard half-pipes, with total area equivalent to five hockey rinks. CHIME reconstructs the image of the overhead sky by processing the radio signals recorded by over a thousand antennas. (Credit: CHIME)

About this study

Periodic activity from a fast radio burst source,” by The CHIME/FRB Collaboration, was published in Nature.

The CHIME/FRB Project is funded by a grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation 2015 Innovation Fund, the Provinces of British Columbia and Québec, and by the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto.

About the CHIME Fast Radio Burst Collaboration

CHIME/FRB is a collaboration of over 50 scientists led by McGill University, University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). The $16-million investment for CHIME was provided by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the governments of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, with additional funding from the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. The telescope is located in the mountains of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley at the NRC’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory near Penticton. CHIME is an official Square Kilometre Array (SKA) pathfinder facility.

About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill is a leading Canadian post-secondary institution. It has two campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 40,000 students, including more than 10,200 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,800 international students making up 31% per cent of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 19% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

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