Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are among the most mysterious astronomical phenomena facing astronomers today. While hundreds of bursts have been detected since the first-ever recorded detection of an FRB in 2007 – the Lorimer Burst – astronomers are still unsure what causes them. Even more mysterious, some have occasionally been found to be repeating in nature, which has fueled speculation that they may not be natural in origin (i.e., possible alien transmissions?). Astronomers are naturally very excited whenever a repeating FRB is found, as it gives them the chance to examine them closer.
In a recent survey, an international team of scientists used three major telescopes worldwide to study a repeating FRB (known as FRB 190520) that was first observed in 2019. According to their observations, this particular FRB is not just a repeating source from a compact object but a persistent one that emits low-level bursts of radio waves between larger ones. These findings raise new questions about the nature of these mysterious objects and how they can be used as tools to probe the space between stars and galaxies.
In recent weeks, the project took a big step forward with the installation of fiber optic amplifiers and splitters on all VLA antennas, which give COSMIC access to the data streams from the entire VLA. Once this digital backend is online, COSMIC will have access to all data provided by the VLAs 27 radio antennas, which will be able to conduct observations 24/7. In the process, COSMIC SETI will examine around 40 million stars in the Milky Way for possible signs of intelligent life.
Roughly 13.8 billion years ago, our Universe was born in a massive explosion that gave rise to the first subatomic particles and the laws of physics as we know them. About 370,000 years later, hydrogen had formed, the building block of stars, which fuse hydrogen and helium in their interiors to create all the heavier elements. While hydrogen remains the most pervasive element in the Universe, it can be difficult to detect individual clouds of hydrogen gas in the interstellar medium (ISM).
This makes it difficult to research the early phases of star formation, which would offer clues about the evolution of galaxies and the cosmos. An international team led by astronomers from the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy (MPIA) recently noticed a massive filament of atomic hydrogen gas in our galaxy. This structure, named “Maggie,” is located about 55,000 light-years away (on the other side of the Milky Way) and is one of the longest structures ever observed in our galaxy.
Patterns in nature often occur in more than one place. Spirals, symmetry, and chaos all impact natural phenomena, from the shape of a shell to the course of a river. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the most famous and fundamental shapes from biology also appears in astrophysics. Yes, scientists have found a double-helix structure in the magnetic field of M87. And it looks just like a super enlarged DNA strand.
When a star exhausts its nuclear fuel towards the end of its lifespan, it undergoes gravitational collapse and sheds its outer layers. This results in a magnificent explosion known as a supernova, which can lead to the creation of a black hole, a pulsar or a white dwarf. And despite decades of observation and research, there is still much scientists don’t know about this phenomena.
Luckily, ongoing observations and improved instruments are leading to all kinds of discoveries that offer chances for new insights. For instance, a team of astronomers with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and NASA recently observed a “cannonball” pulsar speeding away from the supernova that is believed to have created it. This find is already providing insights into how pulsars can pick up speed from a supernova.
Rogue planets are a not-too-uncommon occurrence in our Universe. In fact, within our galaxy alone, it is estimated that there are billions of rogue planets, perhaps even more than there are stars. These objects are basically planet-mass objects that have been ejected from their respective star systems (where they formed), and now orbit the center of the Milky Way. But it is especially surprising to find one orbiting so close to our own Solar System!
In 2016, scientists detected what appeared to be either a brown dwarf or a star orbiting just 20 light years beyond our Solar System. However, using the National Science Foundation’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array(VLA), a team of astronomers recently concluded that it is right at the boundary between a massive planet and a brown dwarf. This, and other mysterious things about this object, represent a mystery and an opportunity to astronomers!
The study which describes their findings recently appeared the Astrophysical Journal under the title “The Strongest Magnetic Fields on the Coolest Brown Dwarfs.” The team was led by Melodie Kao – who led this study while a graduate student at Caltech, and is now a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at Arizona State University – and included members from Arizona State University, the University of Colorado Boulder, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of California San Diego.
To summarize, brown dwarfs are objects that are too massive to be considered planets, but not massive enough to become stars. Originally, such objects were not thought to emit radio waves, but in 2001, a team using the VLA discovered a brown dwarf that exhibited both strong radio emissions and magnetic activity. Ongoing observations also revealed that some brown dwarfs have strong auroras, similar to the gas giants in our Solar System.
This particular object, known as SIMP J01365663+0933473, was first discovered in 2016 by the Caltech team as one of five brown dwarfs. This survey was part of VLA study to gain new knowledge about magnetic fields and the mechanisms by which the coolest astronomical objects can produce strong radio emissions. Since brown dwarfs are incredibly difficult to measure, the object was initially though to be too old and too massive to be a brown dwarf.
However, last year, an independent team of scientists discovered that SIMP J01365663+0933473 was part of a very young group of stars whose age, size and mass indicated that it was likely to be a free-floating (aka. rogue) planet rather than a star. In short, the object was determined to be 200 million years old, 1.22 times the radius of Jupiter and 12.7 times its mass.
It was also estimated to have a surface temperature of about 825 °C (1500 °F) – compared to the Sun’s, which is 5,500 °C (9932 °F). Simultaneously, the Caltech team that originally detected its radio emission in 2016 observed it again in a new study at even higher radio frequencies. From this, they confirmed that its magnetic field was even stronger than first measured, roughly 200 times stronger than Jupiter’s.
As Dr. Kao explained in a recent NRAO press release, this all presents a rather mysterious find:
“This object is right at the boundary between a planet and a brown dwarf, or ‘failed star,’ and is giving us some surprises that can potentially help us understand magnetic processes on both stars and planets… When it was announced that SIMP J01365663+0933473 had a mass near the deuterium-burning limit, I had just finished analyzing its newest VLA data.”
In short, the VLA observations provided both the first radio detection and the first measurement of the magnetic field of a planetary-mass object beyond our Solar System. The presence of a such a strong magnetic field represents a huge challenge to astronomers’ understanding of the dynamo mechanisms that create magnetic fields in brown dwarfs, not to mention the mystery of what drives their auroras.
Ever since brown dwarfs were observed to have auroral activity, scientists have wondered what could be powering them. On Earth, as with Jupiter and the other Solar planets that experience them, aurorae are the result of solar wind interacting with a planet’s magnetic field. But in the case of brown dwarfs, which have no parent star, some other mechanism must be involved. As Kao explained:
“This particular object is exciting because studying its magnetic dynamo mechanisms can give us new insights on how the same type of mechanisms can operate in extrasolar planets — planets beyond our Solar System. We think these mechanisms can work not only in brown dwarfs, but also in both gas giant and terrestrial planets.”
Kao and her team think that one possibility is that this object has an orbiting planet or moon that is interacting with its magnetic field, similar to what happens between Jupiter and its moon Io. Given its proximity to our Solar System, scientists will have the opportunity to address this and other questions, and to learn a great deal about the mechanics that power gas giants and brown dwarfs.
Studying this object will also help astronomers place more accurate constraints on the dividing line between massive planets and brown dwards. And last, but not least, it also presents new opportunities as far exoplanet research is concerned. As Gregg Hallinan, who was Dr. Kao’s advisor and a co-author on the Caltech study, explained:
“Detecting SIMP J01365663+0933473 with the VLA through its auroral radio emission also means that we may have a new way of detecting exoplanets, including the elusive rogue ones not orbiting a parent star.”
Between finding planets that orbit distant stars to planetary-mass objects that orbit the center of the Milky Way, astronomers are making exciting discoveries that are pushing the boundaries of what we know about planetary formation and the different types that can exist. And with next-generation instruments coming online, they plan to learn a great deal more!
For about 10 years, radio astronomers have been detecting mysterious milliseconds-long blasts of radio waves, called “fast radio bursts” (FRB).
While only 18 of these events have been detected so far, one FRB has been particularly intriguing as the signal has been sporadically repeating. First detected in November 2012, astronomers didn’t know if FRB 121102 originated from within the Milky Way galaxy or from across the Universe.
A concentrated search by multiple observatories around the world has now determined that the signals are coming from a dim dwarf galaxy about 2.5 billion light years from Earth. But astronomers are still uncertain about exactly what is creating these bursts.
“These radio flashes must have enormous amounts of energy to be visible from that distance,” said Shami Chatterjee from Cornell University, speaking at a press briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting this week. Chatterjee and his colleagues have papers published today in Nature and Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The patch of the sky where the signal originated is in the constellation Auriga, and Chatterjee said the patch of the sky is arc minutes in diameter. “In that patch are hundreds of sources. Lots of stars, lots of galaxies, lots of stuff,” he said, which made the search difficult.
The Arecibo radio telescope, the observatory that originally detected the event, has a resolution of three arc minutes or about one-tenth of the moon’s diameter, so that was not precise enough to identify the source. Astronomers used the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the European Very Large Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) network, to help narrow the origin. But, said co-author Casey Law from the University of California Berkeley, that also created a lot of data to sort through.
“It was like trying to find a needle in a terabyte haystack,” he said. “It took a lot of algorithmic work to find it.”
Finally on August 23, 2016, the burst made itself extremely apparent with nine extremely bright bursts.
“We had struggled to be able to observe the faintest bursts we could,” Law said, “but suddenly here were nine of the brightest ones ever detected. This FRB was generous to us.”
The team was not only able to pinpoint it to the distant dwarf galaxy, co-author Jason Hessels from ASTRON/University of Amsterdam said they were also able to determine the bursts didn’t come from the center of the galaxy, but came from slightly off-center in the galaxy. That might indicate it didn’t originate from a central black hole. Upcoming observations with the Hubble Space Telescope might be able to pinpoint it even further.
What makes this source burst repeatedly?
“We don’t know yet what caused it or the physical mechanism that makes such bright and fast pulses,” said said Sarah Burke-Spolaor, from West Virginia University. “The FRB could be outflow from an active galactic nuclei (AGN) or it might be more familiar, such as a distant supernova remnant, or a neutron star.”
Burke-Spolaor added that they don’t know yet if all FRBs are created equal, as so far FRB 121102 is the only repeater. The team hopes there will be other examples detected.
“It may be a magnetar – a newborn neutron star with a huge magnetic field, inside a supernova remnant or a pulsar wind nebula – somehow producing these prodigious pulses,” said Chatterjee. “Or, it may be a combination of all these ideas – explaining why what we’re seeing may be somewhat rare.”
The currently accepted theory of planet formation goes like this: clouds of gas and dust are compressed or begin to draw together. When enough material clumps together, a star is formed and begins fusion. As the star, and its cloud of gas and dust rotate, other clumps of matter coagulate within the cloud, eventually forming planets. Voila, solar system.
There’s lots of evidence to support this, but getting a good look at the early stages of planetary formation has been difficult.
But now, an international team of astronomers using the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) have captured the earliest image yet of the process of planetary formation. “We believe this clump of dust represents the earliest stage in the formation of protoplanets, and this is the first time we’ve seen that stage,” said Thomas Henning, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA).
This story actually started back in 2014, when astronomers studied the star HL Tau and its dusty disk with the Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array (ALMA.) That image, which showed gaps in HL Tau’s proto-planetary disk caused by proto-planets sweeping up dust in their orbits, was at the time the earliest image we had of planet formation. HL Tau is only about a million years old, so planet formation in HL Tau’s system was in its early days.
Now, astronomers have studied the same star, and its disk, with the VLA. The capabilities of the VLA allowed them do get an even better look at HL Tau and its disk, in particular the denser area closest to the star. What VLA revealed was a distinct clump of dust in the innermost region of the disk that contains between 3 to 8 times the mass of the Earth. That’s enough to form a few terrestrial planets of the type that inhabit our inner Solar System.
“This is an important discovery, because we have not yet been able to observe most stages in the process of planet formation,” said Carlos Carrasco-Gonzalez from the Institute of Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics (IRyA) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
Of course the star in question, HL Tau, is interesting as well. But the formation and evolution of stars is much more easily studied. It’s our theory of planet formation which needed some observational confirmation. “This is quite different from the case of star formation, where, in different objects, we have seen stars in different stages of their life cycle. With planets, we haven’t been so fortunate, so getting a look at this very early stage in planet formation is extremely valuable,” said Carrasco-Gonzalez.
Radio dishes always evoke wonder, as these giants search for invisible (to our eyes, anyway) radio signals from objects like distant quasars, pulsars, masers and more, including potential signals from extraterrestrials. This new timelapse from Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan of Sunchaser Pictures was shot at several different radio astronomy facilities — the Very Large Array (VLA) Observatory in New Mexico, Owens Valley Observatory in Owens Valley California, and Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. All three of these facilities have been or are still being partly used by the SETI (Search for the Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program.
Watch the dishes dance in their search across the Universe!
The huge meteorite streaking across the sky above Very Large Array (2:40) is from the Aquarids meteor shower. The large radio telescope at Green Bank is where scientists first attempted to “listen” to presence of extraterrestrials in the galaxy. The Very Large Array was featured in the movie CONTACT (1997) while Owens Observatory was featured in THE ARRIVAL (1996).
This video was created for SkyGlowProject.com, a crowdfunded educational project that explores the effects and dangers of urban light pollution in contrast with some of the most incredible Dark Sky Preserves in North America.
The music is by Tom Boddy, and titled “Thoughtful Reflections.”