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Flash of luck: Astronomers spot cosmic radio burst source in our own Milky Way


A stroke of luck helped the astronomers solve a cosmic mystery: What causes powerful radio bursts that are present in the universe?.

It is to be noted that these energetic pulses also called fast radio bursts were known to astronomers for over a decade now. These radio bursts were visible to astronomers as coming from outside our galaxy and this is the reason why it was not easy for the astronomers to trace them back to what's causing them. These radio bursts happen in a couple of milliseconds.

But in April 2020, a relatively weaker radio burst coming from our own Milky Way galaxy was spotted by two dissimilar telescopes: one a California doctoral student's set of handmade antenna and other a Canadian observatory.

The radio burst was tracked by the two telescopes to a weird type of star called a magnetar which is situated around 32,000 light-years from Earth.

The discovery was significant because it was the first time that the astronomers managed to trace fast radio burst to a source and it was the first emanating from our galaxy. 

Magnetars are dense neutron stars, with 1.5 times the mass of our sun. These magnetars have enormous magnetic fields that crackle with energy, according to McGill University astrophysicist Ziggy Pleunis, a co-author of the Canadian study.

The magnetic field around these magnetars "is so strong any atoms nearby are torn apart and bizarre aspects of fundamental physics can be seen," said astronomer Casey Law of the California Institute of Technology.

According to astronomers, there are around a dozen magnetars in our galaxy. The best part is that these radio bursts aren't dangerous to humans.

The ones that come from outside our galaxy are "tens of thousands to millions of times more powerful than anything we have detected in our galaxy," said co-author Daniele Michilli, an astrophysicist at McGill and part of the Canadian team.

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