After seeing a bizarre space object repeatedly explode over 1,600 times in a relatively short time, astronomers are still in doubt about what it really is.
The object is the source of a rapid radio eruption (FRB), a strange space phenomenon that was first discovered in 2007 and about which very little is known.
However, there are some patterns in them. Most appear to release their energy at once, while a few have been observed repeatedly releasing bursts of energy.
One of these FRBs is an object called FRB 121102 located in a dwarf galaxy about 3 billion light-years from us. Using China’s five hundred meters Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST), astronomers studied FRB 121102 for some time, simply trying to gather data about it.
“Originally, it was just stamp collecting,” Bing Zhang, an astrophysicist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said in a statement to our colleagues at Live Science.
After watching FRB 121102 for about 60 hours, scientists saw it explode 1,652 times, with its fastest pace being around one explosion every 30 seconds.
FRBs are difficult to study, mainly because they have almost always been found outside our galaxy and usually at a considerable distance even in universal terms. In 2020, however, an FRB was found in our own galaxy, and scientists were able to identify it as a magnetar, which is a special kind of star known as a neutron star.
It is too early to say whether all FRBs are magnetars, or whether magnetars are just a possible source of FRBs. We also do not know how magnetars give rise to an FRB, so it is difficult to know at all what to look for in FRB 121102.
Zhang was able to exclude gases and dust around the source as a cause, as the rapid series of explosions did not allow enough time for that kind of material to accumulate in large enough quantity to burn the next explosion.
Analysis: Everyone, especially scientists, loves a good mystery
Most space objects are fascinating in themselves, though we learn more and more about them … as there is always more to learn about them.
But FRBs are especially intriguing because they are a rare mystery in science, as we know almost nothing about them. They are also a relatively new discovery, so there are plenty of new research opportunities in studying them.
We do not know what causes them beyond knowing that a magnetar power stand behind the phenomenon, but it’s hard to understand what can cause a magnetar to explode more than 1,600 during a typical weekend.
The mystery is exciting, and with new instruments like FAST coming online that are even better at finding new signals in radio and other previously inaccessible wavelengths of light, there will hopefully be even more mysteries out there that we can discover … and potentially resolve.