Astronomers are trying to find out what causes extremely bright flashes of light in space

Some of the strangest cosmic phenomena are short but powerful bursts of radio waves, which, in a fraction of a second, can release as much energy as the sun produces in a year. Known as fast radio bursts, these extremely bright flashes of energy are thought to be associated with dead stars called magnetars. Now, using two separate telescopes, astronomers have observed one of these events just minutes before and after it occurred, providing the best possible picture yet of what caused this strange event.

In an ejection that causes its rotation to slow, the magnetar is depicted losing material into space in this artist’s concept. The magnetar’s strong, twisted magnetic field lines (shown in green) can influence the flow of electrically charged material from an object, which is a type of neutron star. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers used NASA’s NICER (Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer) on the International Space Station and NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) in low Earth orbit to observe the magnetar called SGR 1935+2154. A magnetar is a type of neutron star, a dense core left behind after a star collapses and has a very strong magnetic field. In October 2022, this magnetar emitted one of its strange and fast radio bursts.

The first thing the researchers noticed was that the explosion occurred due to a period when the magnetar suddenly started spinning faster, which they called a disturbance. “Typically, when disturbances occur, magnetars take weeks or months to return to their normal speed,” researcher Chin-Ping Hu of the National Changhua University of Education in Taiwan said in a statement. statement. “Clearly things happen to these objects on a much shorter time scale than we previously thought, and that may be related to how quickly the radio bursts are generated.”

Scientists are still not sure exactly what behavior of magnetars causes these powerful explosions, but it appears to be related to a combination of the objects’ strong magnetic fields and strong gravity. The cores of these objects are so dense that they can enter a state called superfluid, which can move to the surface and out of cracks caused by faster spin faults. This can throw material outward with enormous energy, and cause the spine’s speed to slow down.

However, this is just a theory, as researchers say they need to observe more explosions to be sure. “We have undoubtedly observed something important for our understanding of fast radio bursts,” said co-researcher George Younes of NASA Goddard. “But I think we still need more data to unravel this mystery.”

This research was published in the journal Natural.

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