A flash of luck helped astronomers solve a cosmic mystery: What causes powerful but fleeting radio bursts that zip and zigzag through the universe? Scientists have known about these energetic pulses—called fast radio bursts—for about 13 years and have seen them coming from outside our galaxy, which makes it harder to trace them back to what's causing them, per the AP. Making it even harder is that they happen so fast, in a couple of milliseconds. Then this April, a rare but considerably weaker burst coming from inside our own Milky Way galaxy was spotted by two dissimilar telescopes: one a California doctoral student’s set of handmade antennas, the other a $20 million Canadian observatory. They tracked that fast radio burst to a weird type of star called a magnetar that’s 32,000 light-years from Earth, according to four studies in Wednesday’s journal Nature.
It was not only the first fast radio burst traced to a source, but the first emanating from our galaxy. Astronomers say there could be other sources for these bursts, but they are now sure about one guilty party: magnetars. Magnetars are incredibly dense neutron stars, with 1.5 times the mass of our sun squeezed into a space the size of Manhattan. They have enormous magnetic fields that buzz and crackle with energy, and sometimes flares of X-rays and radio waves burst from them, according to McGill University astrophysicist Ziggy Pleunis, a study co-author. There are maybe a dozen magnetars in our galaxy, and astronomers have no idea how often these bursts happen. “We still don’t know how lucky we got,” says Caltech radio astronomer Christopher Bochenek. "This could be a once-in-five-year thing or there could be a few events to happen each year."
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