Astronomical radio source

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Astronomical radio sources are objects in outer space that emit strong radio waves. Radio emission comes from a wide variety of sources. Such objects represent some of the most extreme and energetic physical processes in the universe.

Outer space Void between celestial bodies

Outer space, or just space, is the expanse that exists beyond the Earth and outside of any astronomical object. Outer space is not completely empty—it is a hard vacuum containing a low density of particles, predominantly a plasma of hydrogen and helium as well as electromagnetic radiation, magnetic fields, neutrinos, dust, and cosmic rays. The baseline temperature, as set by the background radiation from the Big Bang, is 2.7 kelvins. The plasma between galaxies accounts for about half of the baryonic (ordinary) matter in the universe; it has a number density of less than one hydrogen atom per cubic metre and a temperature of millions of kelvins; local concentrations of this plasma have condensed into stars and galaxies. Studies indicate that 90% of the mass in most galaxies is in an unknown form, called dark matter, which interacts with other matter through gravitational but not electromagnetic forces. Observations suggest that the majority of the mass-energy in the observable universe is a poorly understood vacuum energy of space, which astronomers label dark energy. Intergalactic space takes up most of the volume of the universe, but even galaxies and star systems consist almost entirely of empty space.



In 1932, American physicist and radio engineer Karl Jansky detected radio waves coming from an unknown source in the center of our galaxy. Jansky was studying the origins of radio frequency interference for Bell Laboratories. He found "...a steady hiss type static of unknown origin", which eventually he concluded had an extraterrestrial origin. This was the first time that radio waves were detected from outer space. [1] The first radio sky survey was conducted by Grote Reber and was completed in 1941. In the 1970s, some stars in our galaxy were found to be radio emitters, one of the strongest being the unique binary MWC 349. [2]

Physicist scientist who does research in physics

A physicist is a scientist who specializes in the field of physics, which encompasses the interactions of matter and energy at all length and time scales in the physical universe. Physicists generally are interested in the root or ultimate causes of phenomena, and usually frame their understanding in mathematical terms. Physicists work across a wide range of research fields, spanning all length scales: from sub-atomic and particle physics, through biological physics, to cosmological length scales encompassing the universe as a whole. The field generally includes two types of physicists: experimental physicists who specialize in the observation of physical phenomena and the analysis of experiments, and theoretical physicists who specialize in mathematical modeling of physical systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. Physicists can apply their knowledge towards solving practical problems or to developing new technologies.

Radio technology of using radio waves to carry information

Radio is the technology of using radio waves to carry information, such as sound and images, by systematically modulating properties of electromagnetic energy waves transmitted through space, such as their amplitude, frequency, phase, or pulse width. When radio waves strike an electrical conductor, the oscillating fields induce an alternating current in the conductor. The information in the waves can be extracted and transformed back into its original form.

Engineer professional practitioner of engineering and its sub classes

Engineers, as practitioners of engineering, are professionals who invent, design, analyze, build, and test machines, systems, structures and materials to fulfill objectives and requirements while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost. The word engineer is derived from the Latin words ingeniare and ingenium ("cleverness"). The foundational qualifications of an engineer typically include a four-year bachelor's degree in an engineering discipline, or in some jurisdictions, a master's degree in an engineering discipline plus four to six years of peer-reviewed professional practice and passage of engineering board examinations.

Sources: solar system

The Sun

As the nearest star, the Sun is the brightest radiation source in most frequencies, down to the radio spectrum at 300 MHz (1 m wavelength). When the Sun is quiet, the galactic background noise dominates at longer wavelengths. During geomagnetic storms, the Sun will dominate even at these low frequencies. [3]

Sun Star at the centre of the Solar System

The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is a nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma, with internal convective motion that generates a magnetic field via a dynamo process. It is by far the most important source of energy for life on Earth. Its diameter is about 1.39 million kilometers, or 109 times that of Earth, and its mass is about 330,000 times that of Earth. It accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. Roughly three quarters of the Sun's mass consists of hydrogen (~73%); the rest is mostly helium (~25%), with much smaller quantities of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron.

Geomagnetic storm temporary disturbance of the Earths magnetosphere caused by a disturbance in the interplanetary medium

A geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth's magnetosphere caused by a solar wind shock wave and/or cloud of magnetic field that interacts with the Earth's magnetic field. The increase in the solar wind pressure initially compresses the magnetosphere. The solar wind's magnetic field interacts with the Earth's magnetic field and transfers an increased energy into the magnetosphere. Both interactions cause an increase in plasma movement through the magnetosphere and an increase in electric current in the magnetosphere and ionosphere.


Oscillation of electrons trapped in the magnetosphere of Jupiter produce strong radio signals, particularly bright in the decimeter band.

Magnetosphere of Jupiter magnetosphere of the planet Jupiter

The magnetosphere of Jupiter is the cavity created in the solar wind by the planet's magnetic field. Extending up to seven million kilometers in the Sun's direction and almost to the orbit of Saturn in the opposite direction, Jupiter's magnetosphere is the largest and most powerful of any planetary magnetosphere in the Solar System, and by volume the largest known continuous structure in the Solar System after the heliosphere. Wider and flatter than the Earth's magnetosphere, Jupiter's is stronger by an order of magnitude, while its magnetic moment is roughly 18,000 times larger. The existence of Jupiter's magnetic field was first inferred from observations of radio emissions at the end of the 1950s and was directly observed by the Pioneer 10 spacecraft in 1973.

The magnetosphere of Jupiter is responsible for intense episodes of radio emission from the planet's polar regions. Volcanic activity on Jupiter's moon Io injects gas into Jupiter's magnetosphere, producing a torus of particles about the planet. As Io moves through this torus, the interaction generates Alfvén waves that carry ionized matter into the polar regions of Jupiter. As a result, radio waves are generated through a cyclotron maser mechanism, and the energy is transmitted out along a cone-shaped surface. When Earth intersects this cone, the radio emissions from Jupiter can exceed the solar radio output. [4]

Io (moon) Innermost of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter

Io is the innermost of the four Galilean moons of the planet Jupiter. It is the fourth-largest moon, has the highest density of all the moons, and has the least amount of water of any known astronomical object in the Solar System. It was discovered in 1610 and was named after the mythological character Io, a priestess of Hera who became one of Zeus' lovers.

Alfvén wave

In plasma physics, an Alfvén wave, named after Hannes Alfvén, is a type of magnetohydrodynamic wave in which ions oscillate in response to a restoring force provided by an effective tension on the magnetic field lines.

Cyclotron a type of particle accelerator

A cyclotron is a type of particle accelerator invented by Ernest O. Lawrence in 1929-1930 at the University of California, Berkeley, and patented in 1932. A cyclotron accelerates charged particles outwards from the center along a spiral path. The particles are held to a spiral trajectory by a static magnetic field and accelerated by a rapidly varying electric field. Lawrence was awarded the 1939 Nobel prize in physics for this invention.

Sources: galactic

The galactic center

The galactic center of the Milky Way was the first radio source to be detected. It contains a number of radio sources, including Sagittarius A* and the supermassive black hole at its center.

Sagittarius A* the supermassive black hole said to be the central massive object of the Milky Way Galaxy

Sagittarius A* is a bright and very compact astronomical radio source at the center of the Milky Way, near the border of the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius. It is part of a larger astronomical feature known as Sagittarius A. Sagittarius A* is the location of a supermassive black hole, like those that are now generally accepted to be at the centers of most if not all spiral and elliptical galaxies. Observations of a number of stars, most notably the star S2, orbiting around Sagittarius A* have been used to show the presence of, and produce data about, the Milky Way's central supermassive black hole, and have led to the conclusion that Sagittarius A* is the site of that black hole.

Supernova remnants

Supernova remnants often show diffuse radio emission. Examples include Cassiopeia A, the brightest extrasolar radio source in the sky, and the Crab Nebula.

Neutron Stars


Schematic view of a pulsar. The sphere in the middle represents the neutron star, the curves indicate the magnetic field lines, the protruding cones represent the emission beams and the green line represents the axis on which the star rotates. Pulsar schematic.svg
Schematic view of a pulsar. The sphere in the middle represents the neutron star, the curves indicate the magnetic field lines, the protruding cones represent the emission beams and the green line represents the axis on which the star rotates.

Supernovas sometimes leave behind dense spinning neutron stars called pulsars. They emit jets of charged particles which emit synchrotron radiation in the radio spectrum. Examples include the Crab Pulsar, the first pulsar to be discovered. Pulsars and quasars (dense central cores of extremely distant galaxies) were both discovered by radio astronomers. In 2003 astronomers using the Parkes radio telescope discovered two pulsars orbiting each other, the first such system known.

Rotating Radio Transient (RRAT) Sources

Rotating radio transients (RRATs) are a type of neutron stars discovered in 2006 by a team led by Maura McLaughlin from the Jodrell Bank Observatory at the University of Manchester in the UK. RRATs are believed to produce radio emissions which are very difficult to locate, because of their transient nature. [5] Early efforts have been able to detect radio emissions (sometimes called RRAT flashes) [6] for less than one second a day, and, like with other single-burst signals, one must take great care to distinguish them from terrestrial radio interference. Distributing computing and the Astropulse algorithm may thus lend itself to further detection of RRATs.

Star forming regions

Short radio waves are emitted from complex molecules in dense clouds of gas where stars are giving birth.

Spiral galaxies contain clouds of neutral hydrogen and carbon monoxide which emit radio waves. The radio frequencies of these two molecules were used to map a large portion of the Milky Way galaxy. [7]

Sources: extra-galactic

Radio galaxies

Many galaxies are strong radio emitters, called radio galaxies. Some of the more notable are Centaurus A and Messier 87.

Quasars (short for "quasi-stellar radio source") were one of the first point-like radio sources to be discovered. Quasars' extreme red shift led us to conclude that they are distant active galactic nuclei, believed to be powered by black holes. Active galactic nuclei have jets of charged particles which emit synchrotron radiation. One example is 3C 273, the optically brightest quasar in the sky.

Merging galaxy clusters often show diffuse radio emission. [8]

Cosmic microwave background

The cosmic microwave background is blackbody background radiation left over from the Big Bang (the rapid expansion, roughly 13.8 billion years ago, [9] that was the beginning of the universe).

Extragalactic pulses

D. R. Lorimer and others analyzed archival survey data and found a 30-jansky dispersed burst, less than 5 milliseconds in duration, located 3° from the Small Magellanic Cloud. They reported that the burst properties argue against a physical association with our Galaxy or the Small Magellanic Cloud. In a recent paper, they argue that current models for the free electron content in the universe imply that the burst is less than 1 gigaparsec distant. The fact that no further bursts were seen in 90 hours of additional observations implies that it was a singular event such as a supernova or coalescence (fusion) of relativistic objects. [10] It is suggested that hundreds of similar events could occur every day and, if detected, could serve as cosmological probes. Radio pulsar surveys such as Astropulse-SETI@home offer one of the few opportunities to monitor the radio sky for impulsive burst-like events with millisecond durations. [11] Because of the isolated nature of the observed phenomenon, the nature of the source remains speculative. Possibilities include a black hole-neutron star collision, a neutron star-neutron star collision, a black hole-black hole collision, or some phenomenon not yet considered.

In 2010 there was a new report of 16 similar pulses from the Parkes Telescope which were clearly of terrestrial origin, [12] but in 2013 four pulse sources were identified that supported the likelihood of a genuine extragalactic pulsing population. [13]

These pulses are known as fast radio bursts (FRBs). The first observed burst has become known as the Lorimer burst. Blitzars are one proposed explanation for them.

Sources: not yet observed

Primordial black holes

According to the Big Bang Model, during the first few moments after the Big Bang, pressure and temperature were extremely great. Under these conditions, simple fluctuations in the density of matter may have resulted in local regions dense enough to create black holes. Although most regions of high density would be quickly dispersed by the expansion of the universe, a primordial black hole would be stable, persisting to the present.

One goal of Astropulse is to detect postulated mini black holes that might be evaporating due to "Hawking radiation". Such mini black holes are postulated [14] to have been created during the Big Bang, unlike currently known black holes. Martin Rees has theorized that a black hole, exploding via Hawking radiation, might produce a signal that's detectable in the radio. The Astropulse project hopes that this evaporation would produce radio waves that Astropulse can detect. The evaporation wouldn't create radio waves directly. Instead, it would create an expanding fireball of high-energy gamma rays and particles. This fireball would interact with the surrounding magnetic field, pushing it out and generating radio waves. [15]


Previous searches by various "search for extraterrestrial intelligence" (SETI) projects, starting with Project Ozma, have looked for extraterrestrial communications in the form of narrow-band signals, analogous to our own radio stations. The Astropulse project argues that since we know nothing about how ET might communicate, this might be a bit closed-minded. Thus, the Astropulse Survey can be viewed[ by whom? ] as complementary to the narrow-band SETI@home survey as a by-product of the search for physical phenomena.[ citation needed ]

Other undiscovered phenomena

Explaining their recent discovery of a powerful bursting radio source, NRL astronomer Dr. Joseph Lazio stated: [16] "Amazingly, even though the sky is known to be full of transient objects emitting at X- and gamma-ray wavelengths, very little has been done to look for radio bursts, which are often easier for astronomical objects to produce." The use of coherent dedispersion algorithms and the computing power provided by the SETI network may lead to discovery of previously undiscovered phenomena.

See also

Related Research Articles

Neutron star degenerate stellar remnant

A neutron star is the collapsed core of a giant star which before collapse had a total of between 10 and 29 solar masses. Neutron stars are the smallest and densest stars, not counting hypothetical quark stars and strange stars. Neutron stars have a radius of the order of 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) and a mass lower than a 2.16 solar masses. They result from the supernova explosion of a massive star, combined with gravitational collapse, that compresses the core past white dwarf star density to that of atomic nuclei.

Quasar active galactic nuclei containing a massive black hole

A quasar is an extremely luminous active galactic nucleus (AGN). It has been theorized that most large galaxies contain a supermassive central black hole with mass ranging from millions to billions of times the mass of our Sun. In quasars and other types of AGN, the black hole is surrounded by a gaseous accretion disk. As gas falls toward the black hole, energy is released in the form of electromagnetic radiation, which can be observed across the electromagnetic spectrum. The power radiated by quasars is enormous: the most powerful quasars have luminosities thousands of times greater than a galaxy such as the Milky Way.

Astronomy natural science that deals with the study of celestial objects

Astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. It applies mathematics, physics, and chemistry in an effort to explain the origin of those objects and phenomena and their evolution. Objects of interest include planets, moons, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and comets; the phenomena also includes supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, quasars, blazars, pulsars, and cosmic microwave background radiation. More generally, all phenomena that originate outside Earth's atmosphere are within the purview of astronomy. A related but distinct subject is physical cosmology, which is the study of the Universe as a whole.

Radio astronomy subfield of astronomy that studies celestial objects at radio frequencies

Radio astronomy is a subfield of astronomy that studies celestial objects at radio frequencies. The first detection of radio waves from an astronomical object was in 1932, when Karl Jansky at Bell Telephone Laboratories observed radiation coming from the Milky Way. Subsequent observations have identified a number of different sources of radio emission. These include stars and galaxies, as well as entirely new classes of objects, such as radio galaxies, quasars, pulsars, and masers. The discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, regarded as evidence for the Big Bang theory, was made through radio astronomy.

Active galactic nucleus Compact region at the center of a galaxy that has a much higher than normal luminosity

An active galactic nucleus (AGN) is a compact region at the center of a galaxy that has a much higher than normal luminosity over at least some portion of the electromagnetic spectrum with characteristics indicating that the luminosity is not produced by stars. Such excess non-stellar emission has been observed in the radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet, X-ray and gamma ray wavebands. A galaxy hosting an AGN is called an "active galaxy". The radiation from an AGN is believed to result from the accretion of matter by a supermassive black hole at the center of its host galaxy.

X-ray binary class of binary stars

X-ray binaries are a class of binary stars that are luminous in X-rays. The X-rays are produced by matter falling from one component, called the donor, to the other component, called the accretor, which is very compact: a neutron star or black hole. The infalling matter releases gravitational potential energy, up to several tenths of its rest mass, as X-rays. The lifetime and the mass-transfer rate in an X-ray binary depends on the evolutionary status of the donor star, the mass ratio between the stellar components, and their orbital separation.

Seyfert galaxy A class of active galaxies with very bright nuclei

Seyfert galaxies are one of the two largest groups of active galaxies, along with quasars. They have quasar-like nuclei with very high surface brightnesses whose spectra reveal strong, high-ionisation emission lines, but unlike quasars, their host galaxies are clearly detectable.

Stellar radio sources, radio source stars or radio stars are stellar objects that produce copious emissions of various radio frequencies, whether constant or pulsed. Radio emissions from stars can be produced in many varied ways.

In astroparticle physics, an ultra-high-energy cosmic ray (UHECR) is a cosmic ray with an energy greater than 1 EeV (1018 electronvolts, approximately 0.16 joules), far beyond both the rest mass and energies typical of other cosmic ray particles.

Pulsar highly magnetized, rapidly rotating neutron star or white dwarf

A pulsar is a highly magnetized rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. This radiation can be observed only when the beam of emission is pointing toward Earth, and is responsible for the pulsed appearance of emission. Neutron stars are very dense, and have short, regular rotational periods. This produces a very precise interval between pulses that ranges from milliseconds to seconds for an individual pulsar. Pulsars are believed to be one of the candidates for the source of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays.

An astrophysical jet is an astronomical phenomenon where outflows of ionised matter are emitted as an extended beam along the axis of rotation. When this greatly accelerated matter in the beam approaches the speed of light, astrophysical jets become relativistic jets as they show effects from special relativity.

PSR J0737-3039

PSR J0737−3039 is the only known double pulsar. It consists of two neutron stars emitting electromagnetic waves in the radio wavelength in a relativistic binary system. The two pulsars are known as PSR J0737−3039A and PSR J0737−3039B. It was discovered in 2003 at Australia's Parkes Observatory by an international team led by the radio astronomer Marta Burgay during a high-latitude pulsar survey.

Astropulse citizen science project

Astropulse is a distributed computing project that uses volunteers around the globe to lend their unused computing power to search for primordial black holes, pulsars, and extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). Volunteer resources are harnessed through Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) platform. In 1999, the Space Sciences Laboratory launched SETI@home, which would rely on massively parallel computation on desktop computers scattered around the world. SETI@home utilizes recorded data from the Arecibo radio telescope and searches for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space, signifying the presence of extraterrestrial technology. It was soon recognized that this same data might be scoured for other signals of value to the astronomy and physics community.

Rotating radio transients (RRATs) are sources of short, moderately bright, radio pulses, which were first discovered in 2006. RRATs are thought to be pulsars, i.e. rotating magnetised neutron stars which emit more sporadically and/or with higher pulse-to-pulse variability than the bulk of the known pulsars. The working definition of what a RRAT is, is a pulsar which is more easily discoverable in a search for bright single pulses, as opposed to in Fourier domain searches so that 'RRAT' is little more than a label and does not represent a distinct class of objects from pulsars. As of March 2015 over 100 have been reported.

Neil Gehrels American astronomer

Cornelis A. "Neil" Gehrels was an American astrophysicist specializing in the field of gamma-ray astronomy. He was Chief of the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center from 1995 until his death, and was best known for his work developing the field from early balloon instruments to today's space observatories such as the NASA Swift mission, for which he was the Principal Investigator. He was leading the WFIRST wide-field infrared telescope forward toward a launch in the mid-2020s. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Astrophysical X-ray source astronomical object emitting X-rays

Astrophysical X-ray sources are astronomical objects with physical properties which result in the emission of X-rays.

The galactic ridge is a region of the inner galaxy that is coincident with the galactic plane of the Milky Way. It can be seen from Earth as a band of stars which is interrupted by 'dust lanes'. In these 'dust lanes' the dust in the gaseous galactic disk blocks the visible light of the background stars. Due to this, many of the most interesting features of the Milky Way can only be viewed in X-rays. Along with the point X-ray sources which populate the Milky Way, an apparently diffuse X-ray emission concentrated in the galactic plane is also observed. This is known as the galactic ridge X-ray emission (GRXE). These emissions were originally discovered by Diana Worrall and collaborators in 1982, and since then the origins of these emissions have puzzled astrophysicists around the globe.

PSR J1311–3430 star

PSR J1311–3430 is a pulsar with a spin period of 2.5 milliseconds. It is the first millisecond pulsar found via gamma-ray pulsations. The source was originally identified by the Energetic Gamma Ray Experiment Telescope as a bright gamma ray source, but was not recognized as a pulsar until observations with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope discovered pulsed gamma ray emission. The pulsar has a helium-dominated companion much less massive than itself, and the two are in an orbit with a period of 93.8 minutes. The system is explained by a model where mass from the low mass companion was transferred on to the pulsar, increasing the mass of the pulsar and decreasing its period. These systems are known as Black Widow Pulsars, named after the original such system discovered, PSR B1957+20, and may eventually lead to the companion being completely vaporized. Among systems like these, the orbital period of PSR J1311–3430 is the shortest ever found. Spectroscopic observations of the companion suggest that the mass of the pulsar is 2.7 . Though there is considerable uncertainty in this estimate, the minimum mass for the pulsar that the authors find adequately fits the data is 2.15 , which is still more massive than PSR J1614–2230, the previous record holder for most massive known pulsar.

Fast radio burst high-energy astrophysical phenomenon manifested as a transient radio pulse lasting only a few milliseconds

In radio astronomy, a fast radio burst (FRB) is a transient radio pulse of length ranging from a fraction of a millisecond to a few milliseconds, caused by some high-energy astrophysical process not yet identified. While extremely energetic at their source, the strength of the signal reaching Earth has been described as 1,000 times less than from a mobile phone on the Moon. The first FRB was discovered by Duncan Lorimer and his student David Narkevic in 2007 when they were looking through archival pulsar survey data, and it is therefore commonly referred to as the Lorimer Burst. Several FRBs have since been found, including two repeating FRBs. Although the exact origin and cause is uncertain, they are almost definitely extragalactic. When the FRBs are polarized, it indicates that they are emitted from a source contained within an extremely powerful magnetic field. The origin of the FRBs has yet to be identified; proposals for their origin range from a rapidly rotating neutron star and a black hole, to extraterrestrial intelligence.

Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer

The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) is a future space observatory with three identical telescopes designed to measure the polarization of cosmic X-rays. The mission will study exotic astronomical objects and permit mapping the magnetic fields of black holes, neutron stars, pulsars, supernova remnants, magnetars, quasars, and active galactic nuclei. The high-energy X-ray radiation from these objects' surrounding environment can be polarized – vibrating in a particular direction. Studying the polarization of X-rays reveals the physics of these objects and can provide insights into the high-temperature environments where they are created.


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