Astronomers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced last week the discovery of a mysterious heartbeat-like radio signal pulsating while flashing with “surprising regularity” in a galaxy far from planet Earth.
Astronomers said the signal, which lies in a distant galaxy several billion light-years from Earth, classifies as a fast radio burst, which usually consists of radio waves from an unknown astrophysical origin bursting intensely for a few milliseconds. However, the new discovery lasted approximately three seconds — about 1,000 times longer than the average.
The discovery now holds the record for the longest burst detected.
“There are not many things in the universe that emit strictly periodic signals,” Daniele Michilli, a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, said. “Examples that we know of in our own galaxy are radio pulsars and magnetars, which rotate and produce a beamed emission similar to a lighthouse.”
Michilli compared the new signal to a beamed emission on steroids.
“Previously,” Michilli told KSBW, “we were not able to see these neutron stars emitting radio waves from other galaxies because they are not energetic enough.”
“They are not luminous enough,” he added. “This is the first time where we may have detected a neutron star from so far away.”
Scientists believe a neutron star caused the signal as it rotates like a lighthouse and releases radio waves.
Researchers first discovered such bursts 15 years ago. Since then, astronomers have detected hundreds of similar radio flashes across the universe, but the vast majority of them are “one-offs.”
A recent discovery displayed a regular pattern of radio waves randomly bursting for four days and then would repeat every 16 days.
“It was unusual,” Michilli said. “Not only was it very long, lasting about three seconds, but there were periodic peaks that were remarkably precise, emitting every fraction of a second — boom, boom, boom — like a heartbeat.”
“This is the first time the signal itself is periodic,” he added.
The detection has raised questions about what could cause a signal the likes of which they have never witnessed before.
Researchers reported that previous radio bursts were detected inside clouds with heavy turbulence while others had clean environments. However, the new signal revealed a cloud of plasma, indicating it endured extreme turbulence.
As scientists continue to unpack their latest discovery, the phenomenon has given humankind another key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe.
“Future telescopes promise to discover thousands of fast radio bursts a month, and at that point, we may find many more of these periodic signals,” Michilli said.