Astronomers have detected a strange and persistent “heartbeat” radio signal coming from a distant galaxy.
It has been classified as a fast radio burst (FRB), but where such signals are usually intense emission of radio waves of unknown origin – often lasting up to several milliseconds – then this is different.
The new signal – which appears to blink in a pattern similar to a heartbeat – runs for up to 3 seconds, about 1,000 times longer than the average FRB.
News of the discovery came in the same week with startling images of a dying star and a ‘cosmic universe’. revealed in a special set of NASA photos.
The team found radio waves that repeat every 0.2 seconds within this window, following a clear cyclic pattern.
There are very few things in the universe known to emit these strictly periodic signals, the researchers say.
Daniele Michilli, a postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space, explains: “The examples that we know of in our galaxy are radio pulsars and stars. magnets, they rotate and produce beam emission similar to lighthouses.
“And we think this new signal could be a magnet or pulsar on steroids.”
Radio pulsars and magnetos are types of neutron stars – the extremely dense, rapidly rotating collapsing cores of massive stars.
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Called FRB 20191221A, the signal is currently the longest-lived FRB, with the clearest periodic pattern, detected to date.
Its source is located in a distant galaxy, several billion light-years from Earth.
The team hopes to detect more periodic signals from this source, which can then be used as an astrophysical clock.