Last April, astronomers detected a burst of energy from inside the Milky Way. Two devices spotted the marvel—a $20-million Canadian telescope . . . and a set of antennas fashioned from cakepans. The rare find may help scientists solve an interstellar mystery.
Scientists have studied so-called “fast radio bursts” for years. These bursts, or pulses, usually come from outside Earth’s galaxy. They happen so quickly—a couple of milliseconds—that scientists have been unable to determine what’s causing them.
Astronomers have explored as many as 50 different theories for what causes the bursts. But only God knows for sure: “For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on Earth, visible and invisible.” (Colossians 1:16)
The two separate antennas tracked the same single pulse—the first one found coming from inside the Milky Way.
The pulse emanated from a type of star called a magnetar. Magnetars are the collapsed cores of huge supergiants. They are incredibly dense and crackling with energy. Scientists calculate the detected magnetar to be 32,000 light-years (one single light-year is about six trillion miles!) away.
The magnetic field around magnetars “is so strong any atoms nearby are torn apart,” says astronomer Casey Law. The burst noticed last year lasted less than a second. But it contained about the same amount of energy that Earth’s Sun produces in a whole month!
As radio bursts travel through space, their pulses change. Astronomers hope to use that information to better understand and map the invisible-to-humans material floating between galaxies.
Astronomer Christopher Bochenek spotted the April burst with two handmade antennas. Each is “the size of a large bucket. It’s a piece of six-inch metal pipe with two literal cake pans around it,” he says. Bochenek’s device views a large swath of sky. Therefore, he thought he might observe a fast radio burst in a few years. However, he succeeded after just one year.
The Canadian observatory in British Columbia is more focused, refined, and costly. It views a small sliver of sky. Because of this exactness, Canadian scientists pinpointed the source of the burst.
Astronomers have no idea how often radio bursts happen inside the Milky Way. But they know finding them—inside or outside Earth’s galaxy—isn’t easy. “You had to be looking at the right place at the right millisecond,” researcher Shami Chatterjee says. That makes sighting the same one by two telescopes extremely unusual.
He says, “To find one in our own galaxy: it just puts the cherry on top.”