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The Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts

Scientists have often been baffled by Fast Radio Bursts (FRB), radio signals that are just milliseconds in length that blip all over the galaxy. Interestingly, these FRBs even outshine radio pulsars, even though they are million times farther away than the later.

Dozens of theories have been proposed to explain the phenomenon, including being triggered by some alien civilization. Brian Metzger, an astrophysicist at Columbia University, has a more down-to-earth hypothesis on the FRBs.

The theory

According to Metzger’s model, FRBs are a result of explosions caused by magnetars. “A magnetar is a young neutron star that sometimes burps out charged particles in a supersize version of the coronal mass ejections that erupt on the Sun.

Each new blast plows into the surrounding clutter. When it does, it creates a shock wave, which in turn beams a short, laser-like flash of radio waves halfway across the universe,” according to Quanta Magazine.

What makes Metzger’s theory appealing is that it creates specific predictions as to how future FRBs might look. As such, all that an independent researcher has to do to prove Metzger’s hypothesis is to match the predictions with some FRBs at a future date and see if they align as expected.

For instance, the theory predicts that future FRBs will display a downward shift in frequency as well as X-ray or gamma-ray emissions. These FRBs will only be in galaxies that are in their development phase with numerous fresh stars and new magnetars.

A reflector from the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment. (Image: Z22 via wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scientists have also had greater success in locating long-lasting FRB signals. Recently, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment Fast Radio Burst Project (CHIME/FRB) identified the first-ever FRB to occur on a repeating schedule.

The team analyzed 28 bursts from a source almost half a billion light-years from Earth. The data was recorded between September 2018 and October 2019.

“During that period, the bursts were clustered into a period of four days, and then seemed to switch off for the next 12 days, for a total cycle of about 16 days. Some cycles did not produce any visible bursts, but those that did were all synced up to the same 16-day intervals,” according to Vice.

Unexplained space phenomena

Like FRBs, there are several inexplicable phenomena in space that we are yet to solve. One of them is “Hoag’s Object.” Galaxies tend to be spiral in shape, like our Milky Way, or are shaped elliptically.

The galaxy Hoag’s Object is neither of the two. It basically consists of an old yellow core surrounded by an outer ring of young stars. That’s it. There is nothing in between these two. No other galaxy in the universe has this structure, making it very unique and mysterious.

The mysterious Hoag’s Object. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Another perplexing phenomenon is the Red Rectangle Nebula located 2,300 light-years from Earth. Scientists theorize that “its distinctive shape could be due to the fact that two stars sit at its heart. If shock waves from both stars hit a dusty ring surrounding the pair, they could create two cones of bright dust.

Seen together, these two cones look like a square. To add to the mystery, the nebula also exhibits a rare phenomenon called ‘extended red emission,’ where its dust glows eerily red,” according to Science Focus.

Physicists are not too sure why this happens. One theory suggests that the red glow might be caused by the interaction of carbon molecules in the dust with the intense ultraviolet light of the stars.

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