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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.

More Research Highlights...

Coloured transmission electron micrograph of two Streptococcus sanguinis bacteria

Genomic analysis identified starch-loving Streptococcus sanguinis bacteria (artificially coloured) in the mouths of modern humans and Neanderthals, but not in chimpanzees’ mouths. Credit: National Infection Service/Science Photo Library

Microbiome

Microbes in Neanderthals’ mouths reveal their carb-laden diet

Gunk on ancient teeth yields bacterial DNA, allowing scientists to trace the oral microbiome’s evolution.
Artist's concept of NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space

Data collected by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which launched in 1977, has helped scientists to calculate the density of the interstellar plasma. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomy and astrophysics

Voyager 1 captures faint ripples in the stuff between the stars

The first spacecraft to visit interstellar space has now become the first to make continuous measurements of waves in that remote realm.
Light micrograph of a human egg cell during fertilisation

As a human egg cell is fertilized, two chromosome-containing cellular structures (dotted circles, centre) merge into one — a process that often goes wrong. Credit: Pascal Goetgheluck/Science Photo Library

Developmental biology

The error-prone step at the heart of making an embryo

High-resolution imaging shows why the union between two sets of chromosomes goes awry as least as often as not.
Satellite image of broken iceberg B-44.

Dark water borders chunks of iceberg broken off a West Antarctica glacier. The melting of the region’s ice sheet could allow the bedrock to rise, sloughing water into the ocean. Credit: NASA

Climate change

Antarctic rocks on the rebound could raise sea level much more than expected

When the ice covering the west of the continent disappears, the bedrock could rise up and shove extra water into the ocean.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, Costa Rica

Mist wafts through the trees at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve in Costa Rica. Cloud forests around the world are threatened by development, wood collection and climate change. Credit: Stefano Paterna/Alamy

Conservation biology

Forests that float in the clouds are drifting away

Tropical cloud forests are safe havens for a vast range of creatures and plants, but they are under siege around the globe.
Illustration of a brown dwarf

A rapidly spinning brown dwarf (pictured, artist’s impression) tends to have narrow atmospheric bands; the faster the spin, the thinner the bands. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomy and astrophysics

Dim stars that have failed at fusion are masters of spin

Three brown dwarfs whirl on their axes at a dizzying rate that might be close to the celestial speed limit for these bodies.
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