McGill researchers work to unravel cosmic mystery

MONTREAL -- Fast radio bursts have been a cosmic mystery ever since astronomers first detected the extragalactic pulses about a decade ago.

See Full Article

They're flashes of radio waves lasting less than a thousandth of a second coming from far outside the galaxy.

Nobody knows what they are and where they come from, but new research done partly at Montreal's McGill University solves a piece of the puzzle with the suggestion the phenomenon can repeat.

"It's one of the very rare-in-science 'Eureka!' moments," said Vicky Kaspi, director of the McGill Space Institute.

She said McGill PhD student Paul Scholz made the discovery last November during what was expected to be a routine data analysis project.

While sifting through data gathered from a radio telescope in Puerto Rico, Scholz saw one of the collected signals was particularly bright, as well as being consistent with another burst previously recorded from the same part of the sky.

"I got quite excited when I saw that and knew that it was a big step forward -- a big deal -- right away," he said.

As his colleagues gathered around his computer, Scholz found nine more repetitions, all from the same source.

Kaspi says the discovery is an important step toward discovering exactly what the bursts are and where they come from, with some big implications for humankind's understanding of the universe.

Astronomers know the bursts are quite common (occurring possibly thousands of times per day), travel vast cosmological distances and have a very powerful source.

But because they seemed to be one-time events, Kaspi said they were commonly believed to have been created by "cataclysmic events," such as exploding or colliding stars. However, such an event couldn't cause repeated bursts like the ones Scholz saw, she added.

Now, Kaspi and her fellow astronomers are excitedly considering new possibilities, such as the waves coming from a magnetar -- a highly magnetized neutron star.

The astrophysicist says there are some competing theories, including a study recently published in Nature magazine that seems to contradict their findings. It's also possible the pulses can be created by multiple kinds of sources, she said.

Since the bursts travel long distances between galaxies, figuring out what they are could teach researchers about how the universe evolved.

"It will help us understand how galaxies formed, what's in the vicinity of galaxies and what's in the material between them," she said. "We could learn a lot about the universe from these events... but we have a lot of work left to do."

Both Kaspi and Scholz hope a high-powered telescope called CHIME that is being built in Canada will be able to detect many more of the bursts and eventually lead scientists down the path to solving the mystery.

In the meantime, they'll keep watching the skies.



Advertisements

Latest Tech & Science News

  • G7 leaders agree to fight protectionism, U.S. still not on board on climate agreement

    Tech & Science CBC News
    U.S. President Donald Trump has agreed to include a pledge to fight trade protectionism in a final communique due to be released later on Saturday at the end of a summit of Group of Seven leaders, a G7 source said. Source
  • Selfies with seal pups a no-no: U.S. science agency

    Tech & Science CTV News
    PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- U.S. officials are warning people not to take selfies with seals, no matter how tempting. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries office says seal pupping season is underway in New England and that means people might see seal pups on the beach during Memorial Day weekend. Source
  • Planting trees can't counter carbon emissions: Bob McDonald

    Tech & Science CBC News
    A new report from the Potsdam Institute in Germany shows that planting trees and other plants to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere cannot substitute for cutting carbon emissions. Growing trees and other kinds of "biomass" have been thought of as an effective countermeasure against our rising global carbon emissions. Source
  • Secretive Facebook project wants to turn thoughts to text

    Tech & Science CBC News
    more stories from this episodeThe Manchester bombing and the resilience of teenage girlsOntario Regional Chief says Thunder Bay can't keep Indigenous youth safeJustin Bieber, 'Despacito' and the rise of reggaeton in North American popRyan McMahon's 12-step guide to decolonizing CanadaSecretive Facebook project wants to turn thoughts to text'Party crashers' try to swing the Conservative leadership to Michael ChongRiffed from the Headlines 27/05/2017Full Episode Source
  • Ontario community's work to prevent turtles, snakes being killed a model for others

    Tech & Science CTV News
    A rural Ontario community's work to prevent endangered reptiles from being killed on a 3.6-kilometre stretch of road -- once considered among the world's deadliest for turtles -- is being held up as a successful example of how to protect vulnerable wildlife. Source
  • 'Far Cry 5' sneak peek: 5 things we've learned [Photos]

    Tech & Science Toronto Sun
    MONTREAL – The action-heavy Far Cry video game series has always been known for its exotic settings: tropical Pacific islands, sun-baked African savannahs, the lush valleys and snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. And now… uh, Montana? Game studio Ubisoft Montreal is taking Far Cry into unexplored yet timely territory with next year’s Far Cry 5. Source
  • Europeans try to convince Trump not to pull out of climate accord

    Tech & Science CBC News
    European leaders have mounted a last-ditch effort to stop President Donald Trump from abandoning the Paris climate accord, using multiple meetings this week to sell the American leader on the global agreement to reduce carbon emissions. Source
  • Endangered turtles saved by citizens of Ontario hamlet

    Tech & Science CBC News
    Long Point is a popular camping destination in southern Ontario, a rich ecological site with an abundance of wildlife, and part of UNESCO's World Biosphere Reserve. It is full of marshes, dunes, beaches and forests. Source
  • D.C. zoo officials hoping get panda Mei Xiang pregnant again

    Tech & Science CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- Zoo officials in Washington are hoping to get panda mom Mei Xiang pregnant -- again. Smithsonian National Zoo officials say they performed two artificial inseminations Thursday on 18-year-old Mei Xiang. Officials say they were closely monitoring her for when to do the procedure. Source
  • D.C. zoo officials hoping to get panda Mei Xiang pregnant again

    Tech & Science CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- Zoo officials in Washington are hoping to get panda mom Mei Xiang pregnant -- again. Smithsonian National Zoo officials say they performed two artificial inseminations Thursday on 18-year-old Mei Xiang. Officials say they were closely monitoring her for when to do the procedure. Source