Mysterious super powerful blasts of radio waves once seen only outside the galaxy have for the first time been detected within the Milky Way, new studies find. In addition, scientists have traced these outbursts back to a rare kind of dead star known as a magnetar, the strongest magnets in the universe, for the first time. Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are intense pulses of radio waves that can release more energy in a few thousandths of a second than the sun does in nearly a century. Scientists only discovered FRBs in 2007, and because the bursts are so fast, astrophysicists still have many questions about them and their sources.
Scientists have dozens of theories about the causes of fast radio bursts, from colliding black holes to alien starships. Many theories suggest the bursts originate from neutron stars, which are corpses of stars that died in catastrophic explosions known as supernovas. (Their name comes from how the gravitational pulls of these stellar remnants are powerful enough to crush protons together with electrons to form neutrons). Specifically, previous research has suggested fast radio bursts might explode from a rare type of neutron star known as a magnetar. Magnetars are the most powerful magnets in the cosmos — their magnetic fields can be up to approximately 5,000 trillion times more powerful than Earth’s. “A magnetar is a type of neutron star whose magnetic fields are so strong, they squish atoms into pencil-like shapes,” Christopher Bochenek, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and lead author on one of the new studies, told Space.com.