Powerful Punch of Gamma Rays Found in Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts

Posted November 14th, 2016 at 4:20 pm (UTC-4)
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Fast radio bursts discovered in 2007 with the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. (CSIRO via Wikimedia Commons)

Fast radio bursts discovered in 2007 with the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. (CSIRO via Wikimedia Commons)

Astronomers at the Pennsylvania State University say they have discovered that the mysterious and elusive astronomical phenomenon called fast radio bursts, or FRB’s, can also pack a powerful punch of gamma rays along with their mighty but brief pulse of radio waves.

This discovery of the FRB’s gamma rays was made after researchers studied observational data from NASA’s Swift satellite of the same area of sky where FRB 131104 was detected by Australia’s Parkes Observatory radio telescope on November 4, 2013.

The researchers say that some FRBs may be capable of unleashing a billion times more gamma ray energy than radio waves and may come close to matching the power of gamma rays released by supernovae or exploding massive stars.

The radio waves in FRBs are heard as whistles while its accompanying gamma rays are heard as a bang, say the Penn State scientists.

The researchers, led by physics graduate student James DeLaunay detail their findings in a recently published study in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“I started this search for FRB counterparts without expecting to find anything,” said DeLaunay in a Penn State press release. “This burst was the first that even had useful data to analyze. When I saw that it showed a possible gamma ray counterpart, I couldn’t believe my luck!”

This discovery is said to be the first-ever finding of a non-radio emission from a fast radio burst.

The study suggests that the gamma ray emissions from the 2013 fast radio burst and others like it might also contain long-lived X-ray, optical, or radio emissions.

Back in 2007, a couple of astronomers were studying archival data from a survey of the Small Magellanic Cloud gathered by the 210-foot Parkes radio telescope in Australia. They discovered a mysterious, powerful burst of radio waves that lasted only a few milliseconds.

Fast Radio Burst “Whistle”

These fast radio bursts are thought to originate millions or even billions of light-years away and can emit as much energy in just one millisecond as our sun produces in 10,000 years.

The exact cause for this phenomenon is unknown, but among the phenomena suspected by scientists include supernovae, stellar flares, cataclysmic mergers of neutron stars and evaporating black holes may be behind these quick bursts of radio waves.

While only a few dozen FRB’s have been recorded since their discovery almost a decade ago, some scientists today think that they may be a fairly common phenomenon and can take place more than 2,000 times a day somewhere in the universe.

The authors of the study would like to continue to search for more FRB counterparts, which they say could finally reveal the source of these mysterious astronomical phenomena.

“Maybe we’ll get even luckier next time,” added DeLaunay.

Four models of powerful cosmic events that might have produced the fast radio burst FRB 131104.

Top left: Binary-neutron-star merger (Dana Berry, Skyworks Digital)
Top right: Supernova (G. Bacon, STScI)
Bottom left: Magnetar (Robert S. Mallozzi, UAH/NASA MSFC)
Bottom right: Blck-hole accretion event (M. Weiss, NASA/CXC)

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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