Astronomers Observe a Pulsar 6500 Light-Years From Earth and See Two Separate Flares Coming off its Surface

Astronomy can be a tricky business, owing to the sheer distances involved. Luckily, astronomers have developed a number of tools and strategies over the years that help them to study distant objects in greater detail. In addition to ground-based and space-based telescopes, there’s also the technique known as gravitational lensing, where the gravity of an intervening object is used to magnify light coming from a more distant object.

Recently, a team of Canadian astronomers used this technique to observe an eclipsing binary millisecond pulsar located about 6500 light years away. According to a study produced by the team, they observed two intense regions of radiation around one star (a brown dwarf) to conduct observations of the other star (a pulsar) – which happened to be the highest resolution observations in astronomical history.

The study, titled “Pulsar emission amplified and resolved by plasma lensing in an eclipsing binary“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. The study was led by Robert Main, a PhD astronomy student at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, and included members from the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

The system they observed is known as the “Black Widow Pulsar”, a binary system that consists of a brown dwarf and a millisecond pulsar orbiting closely to each other. Because of their close proximity to one another, scientists have determined that the pulsar is actively siphoning material from its brown dwarf companion and will eventually consume it. Discovered in 1988, the name “Black Widow” has since come to be applied to other similar binaries.

The observations made by the Canadian team were made possible thanks to the rare geometry and characteristics of the binary – specifically, the “wake” or comet-like tail of gas that extends from the brown dwarf to the pulsar. As Robert Main, the lead author of the paper, explained in a Dunlap Institute press release:

“The gas is acting like a magnifying glass right in front of the pulsar. We are essentially looking at the pulsar through a naturally occurring magnifier which periodically allows us to see the two regions separately.”

Like all pulsars, the “Black Widow” is a rapidly rotating neutron star that spins at a rate of over 600 times a second. As it spins, it emits beams of radiation from its two polar hotspots, which have a strobing effect when observed from a distance. The brown dwarf, meanwhile, is about one third the diameter of the Sun, is located roughly two million km from the pulsar and orbits it once every 9 hours.

Image of the pulsar surrounded by its bow shock. White rays indicate particles of matter and antimatter being spewed from the star. Its companion star is too close to the pulsar to be visible at this scale. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Because they are so close together, the brown dwarf is tidally-locked to the pulsar and is blasted by strong radiation. This intense radiation heats one side of the relatively cool brown dwarf to temperatures of about 6000 °C (10,832 °F), the same temperature as our Sun. Because of the radiation and gases passing between them, the emissions coming from the pulsar interfere with each other, which makes them difficult to study.

However, astronomers have long understood that these same regions could be used as “interstellar lenses” that could localize pulsar emission regions, thus allowing for their study. In the past, astronomers have only been able to resolve emission components marginally. But thanks to the efforts of Main and his colleagues, they were able observing two intense radiation flares located 20 kilometers apart.

In addition to being an unprecedentedly high-resolution observation, the results of this study could provide insight into the nature of the mysterious phenomena known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). As Main explained:

“Many observed properties of FRBs could be explained if they are being amplified by plasma lenses. The properties of the amplified pulses we detected in our study show a remarkable similarity to the bursts from the repeating FRB, suggesting that the repeating FRB may be lensed by plasma in its host galaxy.”

It is an exciting time for astronomers, where improved instruments and methods are not only allowing for more accurate observations, but also providing data that could resolve long-standing mysteries. It seems that every few days, fascinating new discoveries are being made!

Further Reading: University of Toronto, Nature

Are Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts Coming From the Collapse of Strange Star Crusts?

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) have fascinated astronomers ever since the first one was detected in 2007. This event was named the “Lorimer Burst” after it discoverer, Duncan Lorimer from West Virginia University. In radio astronomy, this phenomenon refers to transient radio pulses coming from distant cosmological sources, which typically last a few milliseconds on average.

Over two dozen events have been discovered since 2007 and scientists are still not sure what causes them – though theories range from exploding stars and black holes to pulsars and magnetars. However, according to a new study by a team of Chinese astronomers, FRBs may be linked to crusts forming around “strange stars”. According to a model they created, it is the collapse of these crusts that lead to high-energy bursts that can be seen light-years away.

The study, titled “Fast Radio Bursts from the collapse of Strange Star Crusts“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal. The team was led by Yue Zhang of the  School of Astronomy and Space Science (SASC) at Nanjing University and included Jin-Jun Geng and Yong-Feng Huang – a postdoc and professor from the SASC and the Key Laboratory of Modern Astronomy and Astrophysics (also at Nanjing University), respectively.

As they state in their study, all previous attempts to explain FRBs have been unable to resolve where these strange phenomena come from. What’s more, no counterparts in other wavebands have been detected for non-repeating FRBs so far and research into their origins has been confounded by the study of repeating FRBs. This is due to the fact that the former are often attributed to catastrophic events, which are incapable of repeating.

In the case of the FRBs, these catastrophic events include “magnetar giant flares, the collapses of magnetized supramassive rotating neutron stars, binary neutron star mergers, binary white dwarf mergers, collisions between neutron stars and asteroids/comets, collisions between neutron stars and white dwarfs, and evaporation of primordial black holes.”

Alternately, in the case of the repeating FRBs, various models suggest that these could be caused by  “highly magnetized pulsars traveling through asteroid belts, neutron star-white dwarf binary mass transfer, and star quakes of pulsars.” For the sake of their study, the team proposed a new model whereby the build up and collapse of matter on certain types of neutron stars (aka. “strange stars”) could explain the behavior of FRBs. As they explain:

“It has been conjectured that strange quark matter (SQM), a kind of dense material composed of approximately equal numbers of up, down, and strange quarks, may have a lower energy per baryon than ordinary nuclear matter (such as 56 Fe) so that it may be the true ground state of hadronic matter. If this hypothesis is correct, then neutron stars (NSs) may actually be ‘strange stars'”.

This artist’s impression of the cosmic web, the filamentary structure that fills the entire Universe, showing radio sources associated with FRBs. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

According to this model, strange stars build up a layer of hadronic (aka. “normal”) matter on their surface over time. As these SQM stars accrete matter from their environment, their crusts becomes heavier and heavier. Eventually, this leads the crust to collapse, leaving a hot and bare strange star that becomes a powerful source of electrons and positron pairs.

These pairs would then be released along with large amounts of magnetic energy over a very short timescale. The team further hypothesized that during a collapse, a fraction of magnetic energy would be transferred to the polar cap region of the SQM stars, where the magnetic field energy is released. This would cause the electrons and positrons to be accelerated to ultra-relativistic speeds, which would then expand along magnetic field lines to form a shell.

Beyond a certain distance from the star, coherent emission in radio bands will be produced, giving birth to an FRB event. They also theorize that this same phenomenon could give to rise to repeating FRBs. One possibility is that the crust of an SQM star could be reconstructed over time, thus allowing for repeated events. A second is that only small sections of crust collapse at any given time, thus resulting in repeated events.

As they conclude, further studies will be needed before this can be said either way:

Owing to this long reconstruction timescale, multiple FRB events from the same source seem not likely to happen in our scenario. Our model thus is more suitable for explaining the non- repeating FRBs… However, we should also note that during the collapse process, if only a small portion (in the polar cap region) of the crust falls onto the SQM core while the other portion of the crust remains stable, then the rebuilt timescale for the crust can be markedly reduced and repeating FRBs would still be possible.
The CHIME telescope, a massive radio telescope located in Penticton, British Columbia. Credit: CHIME/DRAO

Another thing that they claim will require further investigation is whether or not the collapse of a strange star’s crust could result in electromagnetic radiation other than radio waves. At present, any emissions in the X-ray and Gamma-ray bands would be too faint for current detectors to observe. For these reasons, further investigations of FRB sources with more sensitive instruments are needed.

These include the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) telescope – located in Penticton, British Columbia – and the Square Kilometer Array (SQA) currently under construction in South Africa and Australia. These facilities, which are optimized for radio astronomy, are expected to reveal a great deal more about FRBs and other mysterious cosmic phenomena.

Further Reading: arXiv

Are Fast Radio Bursts Evidence Of Alien Activity?

The extremely energetic events that we see out there in the Universe are usually caused by cataclysmic astrophysical events and activities of one sort or another. But what about Fast Radio Bursts? A pair of astrophysicists at Harvard say that the seldom seen phenomena could, maybe, possibly, be evidence of an advanced alien technology.

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are short-lived radio pulses that last only a few milliseconds. It’s been assumed that they have some astrophysical cause. Fewer than 2 dozen of them have been detected since their discovery in 2007. They’re detected by our huge radio telescopes like the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and the Parkes Observatory in Australia. They’re extremely energetic, and their source is a great distance from us.

The NSF’s Arecibo Observatory, which is located in Puerto Rico, is the world largest radio telescope. Arecibo detected 11 FRBs over the course of 2 months. Credit: NAIC

The two astrophysicists, Avi Loeb at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Manasvi Lingam at Harvard University, decided to investigate the possibility that FRBs have an alien technological origin.

“Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven’t identified a possible natural source with any confidence. An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking.” – Avi Loeb, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

I’ll Take ‘Alien Signals’ For $200 Alex

Loeb and Lingam began by calculating how much energy would be needed to send a signal that strong across such an enormous distance. They found that doing so with solar energy requires a solar array with an area twice the surface area of Earth. That would be enough energy, if the alien civilization was as close as we are to a star similar to our Sun.

Obviously, such a massive construction project is well beyond us. But however unlikely it sounds, it can’t be ruled out.

The pair also asked themselves questions about the viability of such a project. Would the heat and energy involved in such a solar array melt the structure itself? Their answer is that water-cooling would be sufficient to keep an array like this operating.

Their next question was, “Why build something like this in the first place?”

I’ll Take ‘Alien Spacecraft Propulsion Systems’ For $400 Alex”

The thinking behind their idea is based on an idea that we ourselves have had: Could we power a spacecraft by pushing on it with lasers? Or Microwaves? If we’ve thought of it, why wouldn’t other existing civilizations? If another civilization were doing it, what would the technology look like?

Their investigation shows that the engineering they’re talking about could power a spacecraft with a payload of a million tons. That would be about 20 times bigger than our largest cruise ship. According to Lingam, “That’s big enough to carry living passengers across interstellar or even intergalactic distances.”

If FRBs are indeed the result of an alien propulsion system, here’s how it would work: Earth is rotating and orbiting, which means the alien star and galaxy are moving relative to us. That’s why we would only see a brief flash. The beam sweeps across the sky and only hits us for a moment. The repeated appearance of the FRB could be a clue to its alien, technological origin.

The authors of the study outlining this thinking know that it’s speculative. But it’s their job to speculate within scientific constraints, which they have done. As they say in the conclusion of their paper, “Although the possibility that FRBs are produced by extragalactic civilizations is more speculative than an astrophysical origin, quantifying the requirements necessary for an artificial origin serves, at the very least, the important purpose of enabling astronomers to rule it out with future data.”

There are other interpretations when it comes to FRBs, of course. The others of another paper say that for at least one group of FRBs, known as FRB 121102, the source is likely astrophysical. According to them, FRBs likely come from “a young, highly magnetized, extragalactic neutron star.”

Lurking behind these papers are some intriguing questions that are also fun to ponder.

If the system required a solar array twice the size of Earth, where would the materials come from? If the system required water-cooling to avoid melting, where would all the water come from? It’s impossible to know, or to even begin speculating. But a civilization able to do something like this would have to be master engineers and resource exploiters. That goes without saying.

Why they might do it is another question. Probably the same reasons we would: curiosity and exploration, or maybe to escape a dying world.

Either that or they ran out of beer.

Missing Matter Found! Fast Radio Bursts Confirm Cosmological Model

In July of 2012, researchers at the CERN laboratory made history when they announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Though its existence had been hypothesized for over half a century, confirming its existence was a major boon for scientists. In discovering this one particle, the researchers were also able to confirm the Standard Model of particle physics. Much the same is true of our current cosmological model.

For decades, scientists been going by the theory that the Universe consists of about 70% dark energy, 25% dark matter and 5% “luminous matter” – i.e. the matter we can see. But even when all the visible matter is added up, there is a discrepancy where much of it is still considered “missing”. But thanks to the efforts of a team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), scientists now know that we have it right.

This began on April 18th, 2015, when the CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory in Australia detected a fast radio burst (FRB) coming from space. An international alert was immediately issued, and within a few hours, telescopes all around the world were looking for the signal. The CSIRO team began tracking it as well with the Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) located at the Paul Wild Observatory (north of Parkes).

image shows the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope on the left. On the right are successive zoom-ins in on the area where the signal came from (cyan circular region).. Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).
Image showing the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope (left) and zoom-ins on the area where the signal came from (left). Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).

With the help of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s (NAOJ) Subaru telescope in Hawaii, they were able to pinpoint where the signal was coming from. As the CSIRO team described in a paper submitted to Nature, they identified the source, which was an elliptical galaxy located 6 billion light years from Earth.

This was an historic accomplishment, since pinpointing the source of FRBs have never before been possible. Not only do the signals last mere milliseconds, but they are also subject to dispersion – i.e. a delay caused by how much material they pass through. And while FRBs have been detected in the past, the teams tracking them have only been able to obtain measurements of the dispersion, but never the signal’s redshift.

Redshift occurs as a result of an object moving away at relativistic speeds (a portion of the speed of light). For decades, scientists have been using it to determine how fast other galaxies are moving away from our own, and hence the rate of expansion of the Universe. Relying on optical data obtained by the Subaru telescope, the CSIRO team was able to obtain both the dispersion and the redshift data from this signal.

As stated in their paper, this information yielded a “direct measurement of the cosmic density of ionized baryons in the intergalactic medium”. Or, as Dr. Simon Johnston – of the CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division and the co-author of the study – explains, the team was not only to locate the source of the signal, but also obtain measurements which confirmed the distribution of matter in the Universe.

“Until now, the dispersion measure is all we had,” he said. “By also having a distance we can now measure how dense the material is between the point of origin and Earth, and compare that with the current model of the distribution of matter in the Universe. Essentially this lets us weigh the Universe, or at least the normal matter it contains.”

Dr. Evan Keane of the SKA Organization, and lead author on the paper, was similarly enthused about the team’s discovery. “[W]e have found the missing matter,” he said. “It’s the first time a fast radio burst has been used to conduct a cosmological measurement.”

As already noted, FRB signals are quite rare, and only 16 have been detected in the past. Most of these were found by sifting through data months or years after the signal was detected, by which time it would be impossible for any follow-up observations. To address this, Dr. Keane and his team developed a system to detect FRBs and immediately alert other telescopes, so that the source could be pinpointed.

artists rendition of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit:
Artists impression of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit:

It is known as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an international effort led by the SKA Organization to build the world’s largest radio telescope. Combining extreme sensitivity, resolution and a wide field of view, the SKA is expected to trace many FRBs to their host galaxies. In so doing, it is hoped the array will provide more measurements confirming the distribution of matter in the Universe, as well as more information on dark energy.

In the end, these and other discoveries by the SKA could have far-reaching consequences. Knowing the distribution of matter in the universe, and improving our understanding of dark matter (and perhaps even dark energy) could go a long way towards developing a Theory Of Everything (TOE). And knowing how all the fundamental forces of our universe interact will go a long way to finally knowing with certainty how it came to be.

These are exciting time indeed. With every step, we are peeling back the layers of our universe!

Further Reading: CSIRO, SKA Organization, Nature.

Weekly Space Hangout – Feb. 26, 2016: Fast Radio Bursts & Missing Baryons

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)


Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Dave Dickinson ( / @astroguyz)
Jolene Creighton ( / @futurism)
Nicole Gugliucci ( / @noisyastronomer)

Their stories this week:
Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts Solve Missing Baryon Problem

Search Narrows for Planet Nine

WFIRST Unveiled

Double Shadow Transit Season Begins

Pulsar “Web” search for gravitational waves

Milky Way Survey of Gas and Dust Completed

Mars in 3 days? Hm.

Scott Kelly to return to Earth on March 1 – why was he in space for a year?

We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we’ve started a new system. Instead of adding all of the stories to the spreadsheet each week, we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (, which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

You can also join in the discussion between episodes over at our Weekly Space Hangout Crew group in G+!