Green Bank Telescope

Data collected at Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia point to a massive black hole as a potential source of bright radio flares. Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Astronomy and astrophysics

Puzzling flashes from space have an exotic source

A black hole–neutron star duo might produce the brilliant signals.

A neutron star embedded in a powerful magnetic field might be the source of fleeting radio signals that have long mystified astronomers.

Short, powerful pulses of radio-frequency light emanating from far outside the Galaxy are known as fast radio bursts (FRBs). But the origin of these blazingly bright flashes has been a mystery.

To establish where FRBs come from, Jason Hessels at the University of Amsterdam and his colleagues analysed a succession of bursts from a source called FRB 121102. The team relied on data from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. The bursts lasted as little as 30 microseconds each, a duration that points to a neutron star — the collapsed core of a massive star — as their origin.

Other properties of the burst show that the source is embedded in a strong magnetic field. Given FRB 121102’s extreme magnetic environment, the authors suggest that the bursts come from a neutron star that is either near a massive black hole or inside a highly magnetized supernova remnant.