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Canadian astronomers discover 2nd mysterious repeating fast radio burst

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Out in the depths of space, there are radio signals that astronomers don’t understand. Now a Canadian research team has found a repeating signal, only the second of its kind to be discovered.

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are cosmic radio bursts that last only milliseconds. The source is from something with an extremely powerful magnetic field that produces a signal along the radio frequency band.

In a new paper published Wednesday in Nature, researchers reveal that a recently unveiled radio telescope in British Columbia — the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) — captured 13 more FRBs, but more importantly, it caught a second repeating FRB.

The first FRB, designated FRB 121102, was discovered in 2007 using telescope data from 2001. Since then, 36 have been found — 19 last year alone by researchers using an Australian radio telescope.

But exactly what is causing these powerful radio signals that are travelling from distant galaxies isn’t known. Many theories abound — even ones involving aliens — but some of the leading theories involve an object that is highly magnetized such as a star called a magnetar.

In 2015, McGill University PhD student Paul Scholz found that a previously detected FRB actually repeated. It left astronomers scratching their heads over an already bizarre cosmic puzzle.

The mystery deepens

“We certainly hoped that the CHIME telescope was going to be able to discover a lot of fast radio bursts,” said Ingrid Stairs, a member of the CHIME team and an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia. “And we had the good luck to find 13 of these things in the pre-commissioning phase.”

The pre-commissioning phase meant that the telescope wasn’t running at its fullest capacity. In fact, it was only looking at one-quarter of the sky it is able to observe.

This visible-light image shows the host galaxy of the fast radio burst FRB 121102. (Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NRC)

For Kendrick Smith, a cosmologist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., who worked on the software making the detection, FRBs represent a unique challenge.

“FRBs were an unexpected mystery. There aren’t so many qualitative mysteries in astrophysics,” Smith said. “So explaining their nature has become one of the biggest unsolved problems in astrophysics in the last few years.” 

FRBs are similar to pulsars, small and rapidly rotating, dense stars that emit signals as they rotate, sort of like a cosmic lighthouse. However, these pulsars have been found in our galaxy. For FRBs to be detected from other galaxies means the signal has to be trillions of times brighter than a pulsar.

“That’s one followed by 12 zeros. That’s huge,” said Shriharsh Tendulka, an astronomer at McGill University and a member of the CHIME team. “We have no idea how to make something that bright.”

Repeating FRBs may be a rare finding, but they’re even stranger than their single counterparts. In regular FRBs, they emit a single spike. But in the two repeaters, astronomers found different spikes coming in at slightly different frequencies and times.

“We don’t see these kinds of structures from other fast radio bursts that are in a single burst,” said Tendulkar. “So that is exciting. It might point to a difference between their internal mechanisms.”

These 13 FRBs, which include the repeater, were detected on a much lower frequency than had been detected before. Most FRBs found are at frequencies near 1400 megahertz (MHz). But these were found in the band between 400 and 800 MHz.

“The CHIME frequency band sits in this gap where we didn’t know anything about, so that’s fantastic,” Tendulkar said. “It gives us a lot more information.”

More to come

Stairs credits the discoveries to an “amazing team” of post-doctoral researchers and is confident more findings are on the horizon.

“CHIME is looking at the whole northern sky every day so there’s plenty of possibilities to find more of these things,” she said. “The fact that we found a second one just like that in a way implies that there could be lots more out there.”

As for the mystery behind the FRBs — and especially the repeating ones — the Canadian team hopes that with CHIME now at full capacity, more of these repeaters will reveal themselves.

“CHIME is still in its early days and most of the exciting results are yet to come,” Smith said.

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Federal Budget 2021: Ottawa adds $1B to broadband fund for rural, remote communities

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The federal government will add $1 billion to a fund for improving high-speed communications in rural and remote areas of Canada, bringing the total to $2.75 billion by 2026, the Liberals said Monday in their first full budget since the pandemic began last year.

The money is going to the Universal Broadband Fund, which is designed to support the installation of “backbone” infrastructure that connects underserved communities to high-speed internet.

It’s one of many government and private-sector initiatives that have gained urgency since the pandemic began, as Canadians became more dependent on internet service for applications ranging from e-learning to daily business operations.

Ottawa says the additional money will keep it on track to have high-speed broadband in 98 per cent of the country by 2026, and 100 per cent by 2030.

Money spent on high-speed communications will be good for a recovering economy, said Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada, a non-partisan think-tank.

The latest data from Statistics Canada says there were about five million people working from home during the pandemic, up from about two million prior to that, Antunes said in an interview.

“That’s a quarter or so of the workforce,” he added. “And I think a fair number of those people are going to continue to work from home, at least in some part-time way.”

Improved connections to high-speed broadband and mobile communications will add to the productive capacity of the economy overall, especially as it reaches beyond Canada’s cities, Antunes said.

He said there’s been a “real issue” with economic growth outside major urban centres and the improved connectivity “is something that can help stimulate that.”

The Universal Broadband Fund was initially mentioned in the 2019 budget, though specifics were not available until last November’s fiscal update.

The $1-billion top-up to the broadband fund announced today is in addition to $1.75 billion promised to the fund by the federal government’s November fiscal update.

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COVID-19: What you need to know for April 19

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Provincewide

  • Per today’s government report, there are 4,447 new cases in Ontario, for a total of 421,442 since the pandemic began; 2,202 people are in hospital, 755 of them in intensive care, and 516 on ventilators. To date, 7,735 people have died.
  • According to data from the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, there are 40 outbreaks in long-term-care facilities, 36 confirmed active cases of positive residents, and 127 confirmed active cases of positive staff. To date, there have been 3,755 confirmed resident deaths and 11 confirmed staff deaths.
  • Per the government’s report on Ontario’s vaccination program, as of 7 p.m. yesterday, Ontario has administered 66,897 new doses of COVID-19 vaccines, for a total of 3,904,778 since December 2020. 3,212,768 people have received only one dose, and 346,005 people have received both doses.

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Federal budget 2021 highlights: Child care, recovery benefits, OAS increases – everything you need to know

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The federal government’s first budget in more than two years certainly looks the part: At 739 pages, it is a hefty document chock full of billions in new spending.

Those funds will be spread among a number of key groups – students, seniors, parents and small-business owners, to name a few – as Ottawa looks to bolster Canada’s recovery from COVID-19 but also plan for life beyond the pandemic.

To that end, the deficit is projected to hit $354.2-billion in the 2020-21 fiscal year, which just ended – better than expected about five months ago, given the economy’s resilience over the winter months. It is estimated to fall to $154.7-billion this fiscal year, before dropping further in the years to come as pandemic spending recedes from view.

Here are some of the highlights from Monday’s budget.

The budget outlines tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies for a national child-care program, a promise the Liberal Party has made in some form since the early 1990s. Child-care supports became a point of national debate during pandemic lockdowns as parents with young children struggled to juggle work and family responsibilities.

In total, the government proposes spending as much as $30-billion over the next five years, and $8.3-billion each year after that, to bring child-care fees down to a $10-a-day average by 2026. The proposal, which requires negotiation with the provinces and territories, would split subsidies evenly with those governments and targets a 50-per-cent reduction in average child-care fees by the end of 2022.

The federal program is largely modelled on Quebec’s subsidized child-care system, implemented in the 1990s in an effort to increase women’s access to the labour market. Since then, labour participation rates for women aged 25 to 54 in the province have grown to exceed the national average by four percentage points.

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