Fast radio bursts may be from a neutron star orbiting a black hole

Twistiness of the radio waves suggests they traveled through a strong magnetic field

fast radio burst

TWISTS AND TURNS  The twisted waves from a distant fast radio burst suggest the burst originates from a neighborhood with a strong magnetic field. This artist’s impression represents the burst in different radio wavelengths: blue is a shorter wavelength, red is longer.

Jingchuan Yu, Beijing Planetarium/NRAO

OXON HILL, Md. — Fast radio bursts could come from a turbulent home. At least one source of these bright, brief blasts of radio energy may be a young neutron star assisted by a nearby massive black hole, new research suggests.

“The biggest mystery around fast radio bursts is how such powerful and short-duration bursts are emitted,” says astronomer Daniele Michilli of the University of Amsterdam. The latest observations, reported online January 10 in Nature and at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, suggest the bursts are coming from an environment with an unusually strong magnetic field. That field leaves a signature mark on the radio waves, twisting them into spirals, Michilli and his colleagues report.

Only a few fast radio bursts have ever been detected, and most appear as one-off events. Few known processes in the universe can explain them. But one burst, FRB 121102, has been seen repeating over the past decade or so (SN Online: 12/21/16). That repetition let astronomers follow up on the burst, and track it to a dwarf galaxy some 2.5 billion light-years away (SN: 2/4/17, p. 10).

Now, Michilli and his colleagues have used the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico to show that the burst’s source is embedded in an extremely strong magnetic field, 200 times stronger than the average magnetic field in the Milky Way.  

The team measured the radio waves from 16 distinct bursts over three two-hour observational runs spanning several months. The bursts were exceptionally brief, the shortest lasting just 30 microseconds. That means that whatever emitted it must be just 10 kilometers wide, Michilli says.

“To emit a short burst you need a small region,” he says. “Therefore compact objects such as neutron stars are strongly favored by this result.”

The team also analyzed the radio waves in a new way, revealing that what looked like individual bursts were actually composed of many smaller sub-bursts, says astronomer Andrew Seymour of the Universities Space Research Association at Arecibo. That complicates the picture even further. The sub-bursts might be intrinsic to the object that creates them, or they might be the result of the waves passing through blobs of plasma, he says.

Finally, the observations showed that the waves were polarized, all oriented in the same direction. But something had twisted the waves, forcing them to rotate in corkscrews on their way from the dwarf galaxy to Earth. Follow-up observations with the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia confirmed the twists were really there.

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NEW AND IMPROVED New hardware on the Arecibo radio telescope (shown) helped astronomers detect signatures of twisted light from a fast radio burst. NAIC

The only phenomenon that is known to create such a rotation is a strong magnetic field, Michilli says. There are two main hypotheses for the bursts’ behavior. One is that they are from a young, energetic neutron star called a magnetar that’s sitting inside a shell of magnetized gas, which the magnetar itself expelled in a supernova explosion. The magnetar emits radio waves, and the shell makes them rotate.

“If you have young magnetars that have just been born in supernova explosions, only a few decades old, they could be very bursty objects, have very violent youths, and that could give rise to repeating fast radio bursts,” says astronomer Brian Metzger of Columbia University, who was not involved in the new study.

But Michilli points out that in order to drive such strong magnetic fields, the supernova remnant would have to be a million times brighter than even the brightest remnant in the Milky Way, the Crab nebula (SN: 1/1/11, p. 11). Instead, the bursts could come from a young neutron star orbiting the dwarf galaxy’s dominant black hole, which probably has between 10,000 and 1 million times the mass of the sun, he says.

Such large black holes are already known to have strong magnetic fields and to make polarized light rotate. And a neutron star nestling up next to a black hole is a plausible setup: There’s one orbiting the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Although this neutron star’s radio waves don’t come in brief bright bursts, they are also twisted, the researchers say.

If not for that neutron star, “this would seem very contrived to me,” Metzger says. “That combines two unlikely things.”

More exotic explanations remain possible, too, Michilli’s team says.

“The joke is there are far more theories than there are observed bursts,” said coauthor Jason Hessels of the University of Amsterdam in a news conference January 10. “In the coming weeks we expect that very creative theorists will come up with explanations for our observations we haven’t thought of yet.”

Questions remain about whether all fast radio bursts, including the ones that don’t repeat, come from such exciting neighborhoods. “We cannot say yet if there are two classes with different properties, or if it’s one class of fast radio bursts and they just happen to be seen in different configurations,” Michilli says.

It’s also still unknown whether any other bursts have twisted waves at high frequencies — the smoking gun for strong magnetic fields.  Measuring the rotation of the waves in FRB 121102 required hacking Arecibo with new hardware that let it detect higher frequencies than before. “We weren’t able to do that until recently,” Seymour says. “I stayed up on Christmas evening [2016] and made these observations, and luckily it paid off.” Maybe other fast radio bursts that Arecibo observed didn’t show the same rotation signature because the telescope wasn’t ready to measure it yet.

Hessels thinks “the prospects are quite good” for figuring out what fast radio bursts are in the near future. Several new radio observatories around the world are due to come online in the next few years. “These are going to be FRB factories,” Hessels said. He expects to find other repeating bursts, if they exist. “Then we can see if this repeating source is really a complete oddball, or part of a distribution of sources.”

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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