Astronomers have finally uncovered the source of the farthest and most powerful fast radio burst ever detected. This mysterious cosmic radio signal flashed through space for over 8 billion years before finally reaching Earth in 2022. New images from the Hubble Space Telescope reveal that the signal originated from an unusual “blob-like” cluster of merging galaxies over 5 billion light years away.
Surprise Discovery Pinpoints Source of Baffling Radio Blasts
Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are intensely strong flashes of radio waves lasting just a few milliseconds, emitting as much energy in that tiny fraction of a second as the Sun does in one day. Over the last 15 years, astronomers have detected hundreds of FRBs using radio telescopes around the world, but the origins of these bizarre cosmic signals have remained an enigma.
FRBs appear to be coming from distant galaxies across the universe, often in very unexpected locations. Finding the sources of these radio bursts could provide insight into what exotic phenomena may be powering them. “This is an incredible mystery because the energy required to produce one is staggering,” said lead researcher Dr. Siamak Ravanbakhsh, astrophysicist at University College London. “It must involve extreme physical processes that we don’t yet understand. Finding even the furthest FRB source brings us closer to understanding these explosive events.”
| Fast Radio Burst FRB 20220610A |
| Date Detected | June 10th, 2022 |
| Radio Telescope | CHIME radio telescope at Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, Canada |
| Distance | Over 8 billion light years away |
| Luminosity | 13 trillion times brighter than our Sun for 0.7 milliseconds |
| Energy Released | Enough to power 25 sextillion homes for the same duration |
The currently accepted model is that FRBs originate from young magnetars – a type of neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field. The magnetic field around a magnetar is so strong that it deforms the star’s crust, resulting in massive “star quakes” that release huge flares of gamma and X-ray radiation out into space – along with a short burst of radio waves.
However, the source of the recent record-breaking FRB discovered in June 2022 defies expectations. Hubble’s high resolution images pinpoint the signal’s origin to a large “blob-like” structure composed of at least 7 galaxies packed closely together. This is the first FRB definitively traced back to a galaxy group instead of a single galaxy.
Hubble Finds Unexpected Home for Radio Blast in Seven Galaxy Cluster
This Hubble Space Telescope composite image shows the location of FRB 20220610A originating from an oddball group of at least 7 galaxies. Credit: NASA, ESA, Alexandra Mannings (University of California, Santa Cruz), and Wen-fai Fong (Northwestern University)
The Hubble Space Telescope was able to capture the longest and most detailed exposure to date of an FRB source pinpointing it to the center of a dense galaxy group. Current models of FRBs have favored origins in large solitary galaxies undergoing an episode of significant star formation. This newly identified source drastically differs – instead Hubble found the signal came from a “blob-like structure” composed of at least 7 smaller galaxies intricately intertwined.
“Hubble’s high-resolution imaging provides a clear vision deep into the universe as well as tracing some of the farthest cosmological sources,” said astronomer Alexandra Manning, lead author on the Hubble study from the University of California. “Using Hubble, we were able to pinpoint the location of this latest FRB, identifying the host structure.”
This tightly packed galaxy group is known as a galaxy protocluster. Protoclusters contain gas and dust rich in molecular hydrogen – fuel for birthing new stars. They eventually evolve into galaxy clusters up to 100 times more massive than the Milky Way. Understanding why this radio burst came from such an unexpected cosmic environment may require considering completely new models for how FRBs are generated.
“This clustered environment is unlike any other FRB host on record,” Manning said. “The luminous galaxies in the group contain ample gas to fuel starbirth and other high-energy processes, which produces short-lived radio pulses.”
Radio Blast Offers Glimpse Into Early Unverse 8 Billion Years Ago
Not only have astronomers uncovered where this mysterious radio signal came from, but its great distance from Earth means we are observing processes that occurred when the universe was much younger. This FRB flashed through deep space over 8 billion years ago, meaning astronomers are directly witnessing a snapshot of conditions in the ancient universe less than 5 billion years after the Big Bang.
“The protocluster likely expedited a frenzy of starbirth and galaxy growth by bringing ample gas into a small, confined area,” explained astronomer Wen-fai Fong of Northwestern University. “That energy was converted into radio waves which traveled across space for 8 billion years before reaching Earth in June of 2022”
| Properties of Galaxy Protocluster FRB Source |
| Distance from Earth | Over 8 billion light years |
| Lookback Time | Witnessing when universe was > 5 billion years old |
| Number of Galaxies | At least 7 interacting galaxies |
| Stellar Mass | Heavier than Milky Way |
| Star Formation Rate | Nearly 500 solar masses per year |
Catching this rare glimpse back in time provides a unique chance for astronomers to study the early universe during an important transformational period. The first generations of massive galaxies were still rapidly growing at this stage through accretion of cold gas and mergers.
“The cosmic web of galaxies we observe today began as scattered pockets of dust and gas transform into complex cosmic structures,” Fong described. “This newly identified FRB source provides invaluable clues to how that assembly first started.”
Unraveling an Enduring Cosmic Mystery
What exotic phenomena occurring in this primordial galaxy ecosystem could be capable of unleashing such staggeringly powerful radio signals? Astronomers are still searching for a definitive explanation.
Magnetars remain a prime contender – and their ultra-powerful magnetic fields could theoretically be amplified by merging galaxies. Another possibility is that the signal came from an intermediate mass black hole. Or perhaps the radio waves were emitted by a newly formed neutron star left over from a supernova explosion.
“The source is either built differently or powered differently from magnetars in the Milky Way,” noted Dr. Siamak Ravanbakhsh. “It’s possible intense star formation or black hole activity could have increased magnetic fields or turbulent gas to extremely high levels compared to less active galaxies.”
Regardless of the exact mechanism, this groundbreaking discovery has brought researchers significantly closer to finally understanding these perplexingly brilliant cosmological radio bursts. Identifying more FRB sources and host environments with new radio telescopes such as the Square Kilometre Array will shed further light on these transient high-energy luminosities flashing across the deep universe.
“Each new FRB adds depth to our knowledge about their origins and environments – bringing humanity incrementally closer to comprehending their full nature,” Ravanbakhsh concluded. “Pinpointing even one of these sources is an incredible milestone.”
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