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.

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Juno mission: Jupiter’s magnetic field is even weirder than expected

It has long been known that Jupiter has the most intense magnetic field in the solar system, but the first round of results from NASA’s Juno mission has revealed that it is far stronger and more misshapen than scientists predicted.

Announcing the findings of the spacecraft’s first data-collection pass, which saw Juno fly within 2,600 miles (4,200km) of Jupiter on 27th August 2016, NASA mission scientists revealed that the planet far surpassed the expectations of models.

Measuring Jupiter’s magnetosphere using Juno’s magnetometer investigation (MAG) tool, they found that the planet’s magnetic field is even stronger than models predicted, at 7.766 Gaus: 10 times stronger than the strongest fields on Earth.

Furthermore, it is far more irregular in shape, prompting a re-think about how it could be generated.

“Juno is giving us a view of the magnetic field close to Jupiter that we’ve never had before,” said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator and magnetic field investigation lead at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“Already we see that the magnetic field looks lumpy: it is stronger in some places and weaker in others.

An enhanced colour view of Jupiter’s south pole. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gabriel Fiset. Featured image courtesy of NASA/SWRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran

At present, scientists cannot say for certain why or how Jupiter’s magnetic field is so peculiar, but they do already have a theory: that the field is not generated from the planet’s core, but in a layer closer to its surface.

“This uneven distribution suggests that the field might be generated by dynamo action closer to the surface, above the layer of metallic hydrogen,” said Connerney.

However, with many more flybys planned, the scientists will considerable opportunities to learn more about this phenomenon, and more accurately pinpoint the bizarre magnetic field’s cause.

“Every flyby we execute gets us closer to determining where and how Jupiter’s dynamo works,” added Connerney.

With each flyby, which occurs every 53 days, the scientists are treated to a 6MB haul of newly collected information, which takes around 1.5 days to transfer back to Earth.

“Every 53 days, we go screaming by Jupiter, get doused by a fire hose of Jovian science, and there is always something new,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

A newly released image of Jupiter’s stormy south pole. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

An unexpected magnetic field was not the only surprise from the first data haul. The mission also provided a first-look at Jupiter’s poles, which are unexpectedly covered in swirling, densely clustered storms the size of Earth.

“We’re puzzled as to how they could be formed, how stable the configuration is, and why Jupiter’s north pole doesn’t look like the south pole,” said Bolton. “We’re questioning whether this is a dynamic system, and are we seeing just one stage, and over the next year, we’re going to watch it disappear, or is this a stable configuration and these storms are circulating around one another?”

Juno’s Microwave Radiometer (MWR) also threw up some surprises, with some of the planet’s belts appearing to penetrate down to its surface, while others seem to evolve into other structures. It’s a curious phenomenon, and one which the scientists hope to better explore on future flybys.

“On our next flyby on July 11, we will fly directly over one of the most iconic features in the entire solar system – one that every school kid knows – Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” said Bolton.

“If anybody is going to get to the bottom of what is going on below those mammoth swirling crimson cloud tops, it’s Juno and her cloud-piercing science instruments.”