Source of Mysterious ‘Fast’ Radio Signals Pinpointed, But What Is It?

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 globally distributed dishes of the European VLBI Network are linked with each other and the 305-m William E. Gordon Telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Credit:?Danielle?Futselaar.

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.

Gemini composite image of the field around FRB 121102 (indicated). The dwarf host galaxy was imaged, and spectroscopy performed, using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) on the Gemini North telescope on Maunakea in Hawai’i. Data was obtained on October 24-25 and November 2, 2016. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NRC.

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.”

For additional reading:
Gemini Observatory
Berkeley
Nature
Nature News

Distant Stellar Nurseries: This Time, in High Definition

This article is a guest post by Anna Ho, who is currently doing research on stars in the Milky Way through a one-year Fulbright Scholarship at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg, Germany.

In the Milky Way, an average of seven new stars are born every year. In the distant galaxy GN20, an astonishing average of 1,850 new stars are born every year. “How,” you might ask, indignant on behalf of our galactic home, “does GN20 manage 1,850 new stars in the time it takes the Milky Way to pull off one?”

To answer this, we would ideally take a detailed look at the stellar nurseries in GN20, and a detailed look at the stellar nurseries in the Milky Way, and see what makes the former so much more productive than the latter.

But GN20 is simply too far away for a detailed look.

This galaxy is so distant that its light took twelve billion years to reach our telescopes. For reference, Earth itself is only 4.5 billion years old and the universe itself is thought to be about 14 billion years old. Since light takes time to travel, looking out across space means looking back across time, so GN20 is not only a distant, but also a very ancient, galaxy. And, until recently, astronomers’ vision of these distant, ancient galaxies has been blurry.

Consider what happens when you try to load a video with a slow Internet connection, or when you download a low-resolution picture and then stretch it. The image is pixelated. What was once a person’s face becomes a few squares: a couple of brown squares for hair, a couple of pink squares for the face. The low-definition picture makes it impossible to see details: the eyes, the nose, the facial expression.

A face has many details and a galaxy has many varied stellar nurseries. But poor resolution, a result simply of the fact that ancient galaxies like GN20 are separated from our telescopes by vast cosmic distances, has forced astronomers to blur together all of this rich information into a single point.

The situation is completely different here at home in the Milky Way. Astronomers have been able to peer deep into stellar nurseries and witness stellar birth in stunning detail. In 2006, the Hubble Space Telescope took this unprecedentedly detailed action shot of stellar birth at the heart of the Orion Nebula, one of the Milky Way’s most famous stellar nurseries:

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A detailed close-up of stellar birth. Credit: NASA,ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

There are over 3,000 stars in this image: The glowing dots are newborn stars that have recently emerged from their cocoons. Stellar cocoons are made of gas: thousands of these gas cocoons sit nestled in immense cosmic nurseries, which are rich with gas and dust. The central region of that Hubble image, encased by what looks like a bubble, is so clear and bright because the massive stars within have blown away the dust and gas they were forged from. Majestic stellar nurseries are scattered all over the Milky Way, and astronomers have been very successful at uncloaking them in order to understand how stars are made.

Observing nurseries both here at home and in relatively nearby galaxies has enabled astronomers to make great leaps in understanding stellar birth in general: and, in particular, what makes one nursery, or one star formation region, “better” at building stars than another. The answer seems to be: how much gas there is in a particular region. More gas, faster rate of star birth. This relationship between the density of gas and the rate of stellar birth is called the Kennicutt-Schmidt Law. In 1959, the Dutch astronomer Maarten Schmidt raised the question of how exactly increasing gas density influences star birth, and forty years later, in an illustration of how scientific dialogues can span decades, his American colleague Robert Kennicutt used data from 97 galaxies to answer him.

Understanding the Kennicutt-Schmidt Law is crucial for determining how stars form and even how galaxies evolve. One fundamental question is whether there is one rule that governs all galaxies, or whether one rule governs our galactic neighborhood, but a different rule governs distant galaxies. In particular, a family of distant galaxies known as “starburst galaxies” seems to contain particularly productive nurseries. Dissecting these distant, highly efficient stellar factories would mean probing galaxies as they used to be, back near the beginning of the universe.

Enter GN20. GN20 is one of the brightest, most productive of these starburst galaxies. Previously a pixelated dot in astronomers’ images, GN20 has become an example of a transformation in technological capability.

In December 2014, an international team of astronomers led by Dr. Jacqueline Hodge of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the USA, and comprising astronomers from Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Austria, were able to construct an unprecedentedly detailed picture of the stellar nurseries in GN20. Their results were published earlier this year.

The key is a technique called interferometry: observing one object with many telescopes, and combining the information from all the telescopes to construct one detailed image. Dr. Hodge’s team used some of the most sophisticated interferometers in the world: the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in the New Mexico desert, and the Plateau de Bure Interferometer (PdBI) at 2550 meters (8370 feet) above sea level in the French Alps.

With data from these interferometers as well as the Hubble Space Telescope, they turned what used to be one dot into the following composite image:

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GN20 in unprecedented detail (false color image). The 10 kpc (10,000 parsec) scale corresponds to 32,600 light-years. Image credit: Jacqueline Hodge et al. 2015

This is a false color image, and each color stands for a different component of the galaxy. Blue is ultraviolet light, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Green is cold molecular gas, imaged by the VLA. And red is warm dust, heated by the star formation it is shrouding, detected by the PdBI.

Unbundling one pixel into many enabled the team to determine that the nurseries in a starburst galaxy like GN20 are fundamentally different from those in a “normal” galaxy like the Milky Way. Given the same amount of gas, GN20 can churn out orders of magnitude more stars than the Milky Way can. It doesn’t simply have more raw material: it is more efficient at fashioning stars out of it.

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Some of the 66 radio antennas of ALMA, which can be linked to act like a much larger telescope. Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org)

This kind of study is currently unique to the extreme case of GN20. However, it will be more common with the new generation of interferometers, such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Located 5000 meters (16000 feet) high up in the Chilean Andes, ALMA is poised to transform astronomers’ understanding of stellar birth. State-of-the-art telescopes are enabling astronomers to do the kind of detailed science with distant galaxies – ancient galaxies from the early universe – that was once thought to be possible only for our local neighborhood. This is crucial in the scientific quest for universal physical laws, as astronomers are able to test their theories beyond our neighborhood, out across space and back through time.

Astronomers Poised to Capture Image of Supermassive Milky Way Black Hole

Scientists have long suspected that supermassive black holes (SMBH) reside at the center of every large galaxy in our universe. These can be billions of times more massive than our sun, and are so powerful that activity at their boundaries can ripple throughout their host galaxies.

In the case of the Milky Way galaxy, this SMBH is believed to correspond with the location of a complex radio source known as Sagittarius A*.  Like all black holes, no one has even been able to confirm that they exist, simply because no one has ever been able to observe one.

But thanks to researchers working out of MIT’s Haystack Observatory, that may be about to change. Using a new telescope array known as the “Event Horizon Telescope” (EHT), the MIT team hopes to produce this “image of the century” very soon.Initially predicted by Einstein, scientists have been forced to study black holes by observing their apparent effect on space and matter in their vicinity. These include stellar bodies that have periodically disappeared into dark regions, never to be heard from again.

As Sheperd Doeleman, assistant director of the Haystack Observatory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said of black holes: “It’s an exit door from our universe. You walk through that door, you’re not coming back.”

Image of the M87 Galaxy, 50 million ly from the Milky Way, which is believed to have a SMBH at its center. Credit: NASA/CXC/KIPAC/NSF/NRAO/AUI
Image of the M87, a giant elliptical galaxy that is believed to have a SMBH at its center. Credit: NASA/CXC/KIPAC/NSF/NRAO/AUI

As the most extreme object predict by Einstein’s theory of gravity, supermassive black holes are the places in space where, according to Doeleman, “gravity completely goes haywire and crushes an enormous mass into an incredibly close space.”

To create the EHT array, the scientists linked together radio dishes in Hawaii, Arizona, and California. The combined power of the EHT means that it can see details 2,000 times finer than what’s visible to the Hubble Space Telescope.

These radio dishes were then trained on M87, a galaxy some 50 million light years from the Milky Way in the Virgo Cluster, and Sagittarius A* to study the event horizons at their cores.

Other instruments have been able to observe and measure the effects of a black hole on stars, planets, and light. But so far, no one has ever actually seen the Milky Way’s Supermassive black hole.

According to David Rabanus, instruments manager for ALMA: “There is no telescope available which can resolve such a small radius,” he said. “It’s a very high-mass black hole, but that mass is concentrated in a very, very small region.”

Doeleman’s research focuses on studying super massive black holes with sufficient resolution to directly observe the event horizon. To do this his group assembles global networks of telescopes that observe at mm wavelengths to create an Earth-size virtual telescope using the technique of Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).

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Image of Sagittarius A*, the complex radio source at the center of the Milky Way, and believed to be a SMBH. Credit: NASA/Chandra

“We target SgrA*, the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way, and M87, a giant elliptical galaxy,” says Doeleman. “Both of these objects present to us the largest apparent event horizons in the Universe, and both can be resolved by (sub)mm VLBI arrays.” he added. “We call this project The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).”

Ultimately, the EHT project is a world-wide collaboration that combines the resolving power of numerous antennas from a global network of radio telescopes to capture the first image ever of the most exotic object in our Universe – the event horizon of a black hole.

“In essence, we are making a virtual telescope with a mirror that is as big as the Earth,” said Doeleman who is the principal investigator of the Event Horizon Telescope. “Each radio telescope we use can be thought of as a small silvered portion of a large mirror. With enough such silvered spots, one can start to make an image.”

“The Event Horizon Telescope is the first to resolve spatial scales comparable to the size of the event horizon of a black hole,” said University of California, Berkeley astronomer Jason Dexter. “I don’t think it’s crazy to think we might get an image in the next five years.”

First postulated by Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, the existence of black holes has since been supported by decades’ worth of observations, measurements, and experiments. But never has it been possible to directly observe and image one of these maelstroms, whose sheer gravitational power twists and mangle the very fabric of space and time.

Finally being able to observe one will not only be a major scientific breakthrough, but could very well provide the most impressive imagery ever captured.

Three Supermassive Black Holes Tango in a Distant Galaxy, Marking a Huge Discovery

In a galaxy four billion light-years away, three supermassive black holes are locked in a whirling embrace. It’s the tightest trio of black holes known to date and even suggests that these closely packed systems are more common than previously thought.

“What remains extraordinary to me is that these black holes, which are at the very extreme of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, are orbiting one another at 300 times the speed of sound on Earth,” said lead author Roger Deane from the University of Cape Town in a press release.

“Not only that, but using the combined signals from radio telescopes on four continents we are able to observe this exotic system one third of the way across the Universe. It gives me great excitement as this is just scratching the surface of a long list of discoveries that will be made possible with the Square Kilometer Array.”

The system, dubbed SDSS J150243.091111557.3, was first identified as a quasar — a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy, which is rapidly accreting material and shining brightly — four years ago. But its spectrum was slightly wacky with its doubly ionized oxygen emission line [OIII] split into two peaks instead of one.

A favorable explanation suggested there were two active supermassive black holes hiding in the galaxy’s core.

An active galaxy typically shows single-peaked narrow emission lines, which stem from a surrounding region of ionized gas, Deane told Universe Today. The fact that this active galaxy shows double-peaked emission lines, suggests there are two surrounding regions of ionized gas and therefore two active supermassive black holes.

But one of the supermassive black holes was enshrouded in dust. So Deane and colleagues dug a little further. They used a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), which is a means of linking telescopes together, combining signals separated by up to 10,000 km to see detail 50 times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Observations from the European VLBI network — an array of European, Chinese, Russian, and South American antennas — revealed that the dust-covered supermassive black hole was once again two instead of one, making the system three supermassive black holes in total.

The VLBI network. Image Credit: Deane
The VLBI network. Image Credit: Roger Deane

“This is what was so surprising,” Deane told Universe Today. “Our aim was to confirm the two suspected black holes. We did not expect one of these was in fact two, which could only be revealed by the European VLBI Network due [to the] very fine detail it is able to discern.”

Deane and colleagues looked through six similar galaxies before finding their first trio. The fact that they found one so quickly suggests that they’re more common than previously thought.

The inner pair of black holes of the triple system as seen by the European VLBI Network (EVN). Contours show radio emission at 1.7 GHz, the colour scale show radio emission at 5 GHz frequency. Credit: R.P. Deane et al.
The inner pair of black holes of the triple system as seen by the European VLBI Network (EVN). Image Credit: R.P. Deane et al.

Before today, only four triple black hole systems were known, with the closest pair being 2.4 kiloparsecs apart — roughly 2,000 times the distance from Earth to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. But the closest pair in this trio is separated by only 140 parsecs — roughly 10 times that same distance.

Although Deane and colleagues relied on the phenomenal resolution of the VLBI technique in order to spatially separate the two close-in black holes, they also showed that their presence could be inferred from larger-scale features. The orbital motion of the black hole, for instance, is imprinted on its large jets, twisting them into a helical-like shape. This may provide smaller telescopes with a tool to find them with much greater efficiency.

“If the result holds up, it’ll be very cool,” binary supermassive black hole expert Jessie Runnoe from Pennsylvania State University told Universe Today. This research has multiple implications for understanding further phenomena.

The first sheds light on galaxy evolution. Two or three supermassive black holes are the smoking gun that the galaxy has merged with another. So by looking at these galaxies in detail, astronomers can understand how galaxies have evolved into their present-day shapes and sizes.

The second sheds light on a phenomenon known as gravitational radiation. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicts that when one of the two or three supermassive black holes spirals inward, gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space-time itself — propagate out into space.

Future radio telescopes should be able to measure gravitational waves from such systems as their orbits decay.

“Further in the future, the Square Kilometer Array will allow us to find and study these systems in exquisite detail, and really allow us [to] gain a much better understanding of how black holes shape galaxies over the history of the Universe,” said coauthor Matt Jarvis from the Universities of Oxford and Western Cape.

The research was published today in the journal Nature.

Looking Into the Heart of a Quasar

Caption: Artist’s impression of the quasar 3C 279. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

From an ESO press release:

An international team of astronomers has observed the heart of a distant quasar with unprecedented sharpness, two million times finer than human vision. The observations, made by connecting the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope to two others on different continents for the first time, is a crucial step towards the dramatic scientific goal of the “Event Horizon Telescope” project: imaging the supermassive black holes at the centre of our own galaxy and others.

Astronomers connected APEX, in Chile, to the Submillimeter Array (SMA) in Hawaii, USA, and the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT) in Arizona, USA. They were able to make the sharpest direct observation ever of the center of a distant galaxy, the bright quasar 3C 279, which contains a supermassive black hole with a mass about one billion times that of the Sun, and is so far from Earth that its light has taken more than 5 billion years to reach us. APEX is a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), the Onsala Space Observatory (OSO) and ESO. APEX is operated by ESO.

The telescopes were linked using a technique known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). Larger telescopes can make sharper observations, and interferometry allows multiple telescopes to act like a single telescope as large as the separation — or “baseline” — between them. Using VLBI, the sharpest observations can be achieved by making the separation between telescopes as large as possible. For their quasar observations, the team used the three telescopes to create an interferometer with transcontinental baseline lengths of 9447 km from Chile to Hawaii, 7174 km from Chile to Arizona and 4627 km from Arizona to Hawaii. Connecting APEX in Chile to the network was crucial, as it contributed the longest baselines.

The observations were made in radio waves with a wavelength of 1.3 millimetres. This is the first time observations at a wavelength as short as this have been made using such long baselines. The observations achieved a sharpness, or angular resolution, of just 28 microarcseconds — about 8 billionths of a degree. This represents the ability to distinguish details an amazing two million times sharper than human vision. Observations this sharp can probe scales of less than a light-year across the quasar — a remarkable achievement for a target that is billions of light-years away.

The observations represent a new milestone towards imaging supermassive black holes and the regions around them. In future it is planned to connect even more telescopes in this way to create the so-called Event Horizon Telescope. The Event Horizon Telescope will be able to image the shadow of the supermassive black hole in the centre of our Milky Way galaxy, as well as others in nearby galaxies. The shadow — a dark region seen against a brighter background — is caused by the bending of light by the black hole, and would be the first direct observational evidence for the existence of a black hole’s event horizon, the boundary from within which not even light can escape.

The experiment marks the first time that APEX has taken part in VLBI observations, and is the culmination of three years hard work at APEX’s high altitude site on the 5000-metre plateau of Chajnantor in the Chilean Andes, where the atmospheric pressure is only about half that at sea level. To make APEX ready for VLBI, scientists from Germany and Sweden installed new digital data acquisition systems, a very precise atomic clock, and pressurized data recorders capable of recording 4 gigabits per second for many hours under challenging environmental conditions. The data — 4 terabytes from each telescope — were shipped to Germany on hard drives and processed at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn.

The successful addition of APEX is also important for another reason. It shares its location and many aspects of its technology with the new Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope. ALMA is currently under construction and will finally consist of 54 dishes with the same 12-metre diameter as APEX, plus 12 smaller dishes with a diameter of 7 metres. The possibility of connecting ALMA to the network is currently being studied. With the vastly increased collecting area of ALMA’s dishes, the observations could achieve 10 times better sensitivity than these initial tests. This would put the shadow of the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole within reach for future observations.