Mystery Space Source Emits “Heartbeat” Pattern

NASA/CXC/SAO (X-Ray); NASA/JPL-Caltech (Infrared), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Astronomers have detected radio waves with the longest distinct “heartbeat” pattern on record. They say it’s more likely coming from a neutron star than it is a sign of life.

Writing in Nature, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers describe a fast radio burst, a batch of intense radio waves.

The “clear periodic pattern” repeats every 0.2 seconds and lasts for around three seconds at a time. That might not sound much, but normally a fast radio burst lasts for only a few milliseconds. It’s also unusual to have a fast radio burst that repeats rather than being a one-off event.

Not only is the duration unusual, but it’s the first time the pattern of the burst has been so regular. MIT’s Daniele Michilli told EuroNews it went “boom, boom, boom – like a heartbeat.”

Michilli and colleagues think the most likely explanation could be either a radio pulsar (pictured above) or a magnetar star. Both are types of neutron star, which are the core left over after stars go supernova. The extremely dense core is usually left spinning, which could explain the pattern.

It isn’t just an interesting discovery, but could have a practical use. The astronomers say it could serve as an “astrophysical clock.” The idea would be to track changes to the pattern to get another insight into how quickly the universe is expanding.