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B.C. telescope picks up mysterious repeating fast radio burst

Last Updated Jan 10, 2019 at 1:26 pm MST

FILE: An interferometric radio telescope at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Okanagan Falls, B.C., is shown in this undated handout photo. Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment A new radio telescope has allowed space watchers to see bursts of light travelling from a far-away galaxy in a discovery they say could open new doors in astrophysics and cosmology. The revolutionary radio telescope housed in an observatory south of Penticton, B.C., is at the centre of the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - CHIME, Andre Recnik

Radio telescope in the Okanagan has picked up a repeating radio burst from space -- only the second to ever be recorded

A repeating burst was one of 13 total bursts detected by the CHIME telescope in Penticton last summer

PENTICTON (NEWS 1130) – Could it be a sign that there’s indeed life beyond earth?

A radio telescope in the Okanagan has picked up a repeating fast radio burst from space — only the second to ever be recorded.

“That is pretty important, actually,” Ingrid Stairs, a UBC astrophysicist involved with the project, says. “When the first repeater was found, we didn’t know if that was a unique object in the universe or if there was a class of these things, or if maybe all of the fast radio bursts actually were repeated, but many of the bursts were too faint for our telescopes to pick up.”

The repeating burst was detected last summer, and was among more than a dozen other fast radio bursts picked up by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) telescope in Penticton.

“We built this instrument specifically to try and detect these fast radio bursts, and we were still in our pre-commissioning phase, running with only partial sensitivity and taking the system up and down every day or so, and yet we still detected these 13 bursts, pretty much when we turned the instrument on.”

“One of those 13 fast radio bursts that we found is a repeating burst, it has shown up on many days since those initial observations, and this is only the second repeating fast radio burst ever found,” Stairs explains. “So we’re hoping we can learn a lot about that system in the future.”

Over time, Stairs says researchers will hopefully be able to develop a “clearer picture” that could lead to figuring out what exactly is producing these radio waves.

There are some theories as to what is behind the repeating burst, and Stairs says there’s no shortage of explanations.

CHIME consists of four adjacent cylindrical reflectors oriented north-south. (Courtesy CHIME Collaboration)

“Most of the, sort of, reasonable theories involve a neutron star, or possibly a black hole,” she explains. “But certainly something that’s very, very small. That’s because the fast radio bursts rise and fall — the emission only lasts for about a few milliseconds, typically.”

A neutron star, she says, would be the right size — at probably about 10 kilometres in radius. Stairs explains it is the “leftover core of a star that has gone supernova.”

Describing neutron stars as “energetic objects,” she adds they could maybe produce bursts like the ones detected by CHIME.

-With files from Taran Parmar