Two NASA X-ray telescopes recently observed one of these phenomena – known as a fast radio burst (FRB) – just minutes before and after it occurred. This unprecedented observation is helping scientists better understand these extreme radio events.

FRBs last only a fraction of a second but can release as much energy as the Sun over an entire year. Their light forms a beam similar to a laser, distinguishing them from more chaotic cosmic explosions. However, their brevity makes pinpointing the source difficult. Before 2020, those traced back to their origin came from outside our galaxy, too far for astronomers to see what created them.

Then an FRB occurred in the Milky Way from an extremely dense object called a magnetar, the collapsed remains of an exploded star. In October 2022, the same magnetar – named SGR 1935+2154 – produced another FRB, closely studied by NASA’s NICER telescope onboard the International Space Station and NuSTAR in low-Earth orbit.

The telescopes observed the magnetar for hours, glimpsing what was happening on its surface and immediate environment before and after the quick radio burst. Results from the new study published in Nature are an example of NASA telescopes working together to observe and track short-lived cosmic events.

The burst occurred between two “glitches”, when the magnetar suddenly began spinning faster. Calculations show SGR 1935+2154 is around 20 kilometers wide and spins about 3.2 times per second – meaning its surface moves nearly 11,000 kilometers per hour.

Slowing or speeding such an object requires immense energy. Surprisingly, the authors saw the magnetar decelerate to below its previous glitch rate in just nine hours – around 100 times faster than seen before in a magnetar.

Normally it takes weeks or months to recover spin rate after glitches, said study lead author Chin-Ping Hu of Taiwan’s National Changhua University of Education. Clearly something is happening on faster timescales than we thought, and that could relate to how quickly FRBs are generated.

Factors like magnetars’ extreme density, volatile surfaces that regularly eject X-rays and high-energy light, and potential desynchronization of their solid outer layers and superfluid interiors may play a role. But having observed only one such phenomenon, the team cannot confirm which triggered this FRB.

We’ve surely witnessed something important to understanding FRBs, said George Younes of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. But we need a lot more data to solve the full mystery. Continued multi-wavelength observations of more magnetars may hold the key to solving why these enigmatic cosmic flashes occur.


Sources

NASA | Hu, CP., Narita, T., Enoto, T. et al. Rapid spin changes around a magnetar fast radio burst. Nature 626, 500–504 (2024). doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-07012-5


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