"Artist’s impression of a fast radio burst traveling through space and reaching Earth" by ESO/M. Kornmesser / CC BY 4.0

Bizarre nearby star offers clues to origins of mysterious fast radio bursts

Jun 10, 2020

By Alexandra Witze

For a fraction of a second in late April, a hyper-magnetized star in the Milky Way suddenly blasted out radio energy. Now scientists say that this sudden, strange blip could help to explain one of astronomy’s biggest puzzles: what powers the hundreds of other mysterious fast radio bursts (FRBs) that have been spotted much farther away in the Universe.

The star, known as SGR 1935+2154, is a magnetar — a dense, spinning ember left behind after a supernova and wrapped in intense magnetic fields. Many astronomers think that fast radio bursts — brief but powerful cosmic flashes that flare for just milliseconds — come from magnetars, but haven’t been able to show the link.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the nail in the coffin that we’ve figured out that fast radio bursts come from magnetars,” says Emily Petroff, an astronomer at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “But it’s by far the most promising piece of evidence that we’ve found.”

Preliminary papers describing the burst, which is the first to be detected in the Milky Way, have flooded the arXiv preprint server in recent days.

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