SEATTLE — Astronomers have spotted a second repeating fast radio burst, and it looks a lot like the first. The existence of a second repeating burst suggests there could be many more of the mysterious signals in the cosmos.
The burst, called FRB 180814.J0422+73, is one of 13 newly discovered fast radio bursts, or FRBs — brief, bright signals of radio energy that come from distant galaxies. The FRBs were detected over a few weeks last year by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME, in British Columbia. Astronomers reported the discoveries at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society on January 7 and in the Jan. 9 Nature.
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Most such bursts erupt once, last for a few milliseconds, and are never seen again. So astronomers have puzzled over what causes them for years (SN: 8/9/14, p. 22).
“If you have something that flashes for a millisecond in the sky, and there’s nothing that happens for many years, it’s really hard to study,” says astronomer Shriharsh Tendulkar of McGill University in Montreal, a member of the CHIME team.
But then in 2016, astronomers discovered the first repeating FRB when they realized that a series of bursts all came from a single source, called FRB 121102 (SN: 4/2/16, p. 12). Astronomers tracked the signal to its host galaxy (SN: 2/4/17, p. 10) and determined it was coming from an extremely magnetic environment, such as the region surrounding a black hole (SN: 2/3/18, p. 6). Researchers didn’t know if FRB 121102’s repeating signal was unique. Of the more than 60 FRBs detected, no other was known to repeat — until now. Having spotted a second one, scientists are searching for more.
“Imagine you saw a unicorn,” Tendulkar says. “Then suddenly you discover another one. You know now there is a population of these. There is hope for discovering a lot more.”
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The CHIME team detected the first of the repeating FRB signals on August 14, with four more coming over the next two months from the same spot on the sky. It wasn’t until the third burst, on September 17, that the team realized they might have a repeater, Tendulkar says.
“Somebody pointed out, hey look, these three bursts seem to have the same properties,” he says. “Everybody got really excited.”
Calculations show that the new repeater is about 1.6 billion light-years away. The CHIME team also saw an odd similarity between the two known repeating bursts. Most FRBs are just a sharp blip, akin to a single note being played on a trumpet. But some of the individual bursts in both repeaters were made up of multiple sub-bursts that descended in frequency, like the “wah wah wah wah” of a sad trombone.
“We’ve seen this in 121102, and we can’t explain it,” says astronomer Emily Petroff of ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute of Radio Astronomy, who was not involved in the new work. “Up until now we’ve only had the one repeater, and it’s given us more questions than answers.” But the fact that both repeaters behave similarly could suggest they have similar origins, she says.
Astronomers may have already caught a third repeating burst, too. FRB 110523, discovered in 2015, has some similar features to the first known repeating FRB, so it was worth checking to see if it also repeats, said astronomer Allison McCarthy of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Together with Andrew Seymour of the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, McCarthy analyzed more than 41 hours of observations of FRB 110523 taken at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. They found one potential repeat burst, McCarthy reported January 9 in a poster at the AAS meeting, but they’re not declaring victory just yet. “It wasn’t strong enough for us to be very sure we had detected one,” McCarthy said, adding that they’re about 60 percent certain. “But it’s still a promising candidate.”
Astronomers’ theories for what causes FRBs are almost as numerous as known FRBs themselves. At one point, astronomers even considered the idea that FRBs could be signals from intelligent aliens. But it’s unclear if the repeating bursts and single bursts both come from the same kinds of sources, or even if one-offs might also repeat if watched for long enough.
“It’s the wild, wild west out there,” Tendulkar says. “We have tantalizing clues, but it’s hard to make definitive conclusions.”
CHIME is likely to catch a lot more of these fast radio bursts. The telescope was still being tested when it caught the 13 new ones, so was not operating at peak performance. “They just barely turned on the telescope,” Petroff says, “and they’re already finding things.”