Cosmic radio burst traced back to distant dwarf galaxy

A burst of cosmic radio waves has finally been traced back to its source: an old dwarf galaxy located more than 3 billion light years from Earth.

Such bursts are rare and last only briefly, but have been of interest since their first detection almost ten years ago due to their appearance from outside our galaxy.

Fast radio bursts flash for just a few milliseconds and need to be very powerful in order to be observed from Earth. Combined with their origin being outside our galaxy, the fact that none of those originally observed were detected again has led to such bursts causing great interest in the astronomical community.

The Fornax dwarf galaxy, which, like the galaxy responsible for the cosmic radio burst, is significantly smaller than our own Milky Way. Image courtesy of ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

A repeating burst discovered in 2012 allowed researchers to monitor its area of the sky with the Karl Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico and the Arecibo radio dish in Puerto Rico.

The development of high-speed data recording and real-time data analysis software by an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, allowed the VLA to detect a total of nine bursts over the period of a month last year.

The VLA’s detection pinpointed the burst to within a tenth of an arcsecond, subsequent efforts by larger European and American radio interferometer arrays further narrowed it to within one-hundredth of an arcsecond, within a region about 100 light years in diameter. Deep imaging by the Gemini North Telescope followed and revealed an optically faint dwarf galaxy that the VLA found to continuously emit low-level radio waves.

Image courtesy of Danielle Futselaar (www.artsource.nl)

This emission is typical of a galaxy with an active nucleus perhaps indicative of a central supermassive black hole. It is also noted that extremely bright exploding stars – called superluminous supernovae – and long gamma ray bursts also occur in this type of galaxy. Both such events are believed to be associated with the massive, highly magnetic and rapidly rotating neutron stars called magnetars.

“All these threads point to the idea that in this environment, something generates these magnetars,” said co-author and UC Berkeley astronomer Casey Law.

“It could be created by a superluminous supernova or a long gamma ray burst, and then later on, as it evolves and its rotation slows down a bit, it produces these fast radio bursts as well as continuous radio emission powered by that spindown. Later on in life, it looks like the magnetars we see in our galaxy, which have extremely strong magnetic fields but rotate more like ordinary pulsars.”

Law’s theory is but one, though the new data has ruled out several explanations for the origin of the radio bursts that had previously been offered. Law’s team are the first to observe the bursts as a cosmological phenomenon and where said phenomenon is occurring; the objective now is to figure out the reason for the phenomenon’s occurrence.

60% of primate species threatened with extinction

A new study has called for urgent action to protect the world’s rapidly dwindling primate populations after figures revealed that 60% of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction. There are over 500 currently recognised primate species, with the percentage considered at risk having increased by 20% since 1996.

The study draws attention to the incredible impact that humans have placed on primate environments. Agriculture, logging, construction, resource extraction and other human activities have all placed escalating and unsustainable pressure on the animals’ habitats, and are predicted to only worsen over the next 50 years.

Unless immediate action is taken, the scientists predict numerous extinctions.

“In 1996 around 40% of the then recognised primate taxa were threatened. The increase to 60% at present is extremely worrying and indicates that more conservation efforts are needed to halt this increase,” says Serge Wich, professor by special appointment of Conservation of the Great Apes at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, one of the main suggestions for helping the primates is first helping humans. Most primates live in regions characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, a fact that the study authors believe leads to greater hunting and habitat loss.

They suggest that immediate actions should be taken to improve health and access to education, develop sustainable land-use initiatives, and preserve traditional livelihoods that can contribute to food security and environmental conservation.

While it may be tragic to some, it could be easy to see the loss of these primates as unimportant to humans. However, it is important to note that the non-human primates’ biological relation to humans offers unique insights into human evolution, biology, behaviour and the threat of emerging diseases.

Additionally, these species serve as key components of tropical biodiversity and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. If they are struck by mass extinction, it is hard to predict the impact it could have on their ecosystems.

“‘If we are unable to reduce the impact of our activities on primates, it is difficult to foresee how we will maintain this fantastic diversity of our closest relatives in the near future,” added Wich. “That will not only be a great loss from a scientific point of view, but will also have a negative influence on the ecosystems that we all rely so much upon. It is therefore important to drastically change from the business as usual scenarios to more sustainable ones.”

The threat posed to delicate ecosystems by human expansion is nothing new, but it is perhaps shocking to have such a blunt figure out there as to the damage being caused.

More than half of these species – species that are far closer to us than we may be comfortable discussing – could die unless current policy is reversed.

The study’s authors have called on authorities across the world to take action and raise awareness of the issues raised.

The article itself is published in the latest edition of the journal Science Advances.

Mark Zuckerberg: VR goal is still 5-10 years away

Mark Zuzkerberg has said that the true goal of virtual reality could still be a decade away, in a testimony during a high-profile court case against his company.

Facebook, as owner of Oculus, is currently in the middle of being sued by ZeniMax Media for allegedly stealing technology for the virtual reality device. If proved guilty, they will be pursued for the amount of $2bn by ZeniMax.  However, perhaps more pertinent to the actual future of virtual reality are comments arising from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony.

As it currently stands, virtual reality is still a far cry from being integrated into everyday life on a wide scale. Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are still largely targeting gamers and the idea of entertainment experiences. While they have found varying levels of success, all three platforms are being held back by the youth of the technology and, in the case of Vive and Oculus, the limited by the need for a high performing computer to plug into.

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The revelation isn’t a particularly shocking one; even the most ardent believer in virtual reality has to admit that we’re a fair way off the goal. Indeed, we can be seen as being in the first wave of mainstream virtual reality, with the main players in the tech using gaming as a way to introduce the technology to a group that are most likely to be interested from the off.

Zuckerberg has far grander plans than simply expanding the user base however, as seen with projects such as Facebook Social VR. If games are the entry, the idea is to expand virtual reality to become a whole new computing platform used for a bevy of experiences and containing a whole load of tools. The ambition is high, the reality slightly lagging behind.

Mark Zuckerberg with Priscilla Chan in 2016

When asked about the realisation of VR as this new computing platform, Zuckerberg replied: “These things end up being more complex than you think up front. If anything, we may have to invest even more money to get to the goals we had than we had thought up front.”

He then went on to add that the probable investment for Facebook to reach that goal is likely to top the $3bn mark over the next ten years. Considering the social media giant spent $2bn just to acquire Oculus, this represents a truly colossal investment in something that seemed to be initially set to hit a lot sooner. Admittedly the goal is rather grand: providing hundreds of millions of people with a good virtual reality experience transcending gaming alone.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s very important that you know that Mark Zuckerberg did in fact wear a suit to trial. Whether Palmer Luckey, making his first public appearance since his Gamergate/Trump support scandal last year, will manage to ditch the flip flops when he testifies is yet to be seen.