In a new survey, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have managed to pinpoint the location of several Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). FRBs are powerful jets of energy that, until recently, had mysterious, unknown origins. The research team, which includes University of California Santa Cruz’ Alexandra Manning and Sunil Simha, as well as Northwestern University’s Wen-fai Fong, performed a survey of eight FRBs, from which they were able to determine that five of them originated from a spiral arm in their host galaxies.

FRB sources are notoriously difficult to locate, because the bursts don’t last very long, and few of them repeat, making follow-up observations incredibly challenging. The first FRB was seen in 2007 (though searching through archival data revealed that an FRB had been captured in July 2001 by the Parkes radio observatory in Australia). In the twenty years since, about a thousand of them have been detected – but only about 15 have had their source identified.

Based on the observations available so far, the best hypothesis for the origin of FRBs is that they are created by outbursts of energy from magnetars. Magnetars are a type of neutron star (incredibly dense stellar cores left over from the collapse of supergiant stars), and are named for their powerful magnetic fields. In 2020, one FRB was traced to a magnetar, lending the hypothesis some firm evidence that had previously been lacking.

Hubble images showing two galaxies from which FRB’s originated (marked by dotted ovals). On the right, the images have been enhanced to show the spiral arms of the galaxies. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Alexandra Mannings (UC Santa Cruz), Wen-fai Fong (Northwestern) Image Processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

This current research helps to further cement the magnetar hypothesis, ruling out some other possible FRB sources. For example, by identifying that FRBs seem to occur along galactic spiral arms, the research indicates that FRBs probably do not originate from the explosion of massive young stars, which cluster in brighter regions of the galaxies. It also rules out the merger of two neutron stars as an FRB source,
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