#210 - Tim Chrisman - FRB

This week Chris joins Matt to talk about the latest FRB news and a couple of Moon missions. Matt talks to Tim Chrisman of the Foundation for The Future.

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.

Carl Sagan

Tim Chrisman is the founder and executive director of Foundation for The Future (, author of Humanity in Space, a look at the future of the second century of human spaceflight, and former Army Special Operations officer. Foundation for The Future is focused on the creation of a secure, sustainable, and efficient gateway to outer space


2005 – The Venus Express mission of the European Space Agency is launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

1934 – Carl Sagan, American astronomer, astrophysicist, and cosmologist (d. 1996)

A Fast Radio Burst within the Milky Way

What I love about this story is that in the lifetime of the podcast we’ve gone from a deep mystery to homing in on the answer, and this really looks like the problem is getting very close to being solved, but also studying magnetars will surely reveal some amazing physics as they are soo extreme.

The star, known as SGR 1935+2154, is a magnetar and is in the Milky Way.

A gamma-ray stream event was spotted on 27th April from SGR 1935+2154, by the Nasa’s Swift telescope, that orbits twice as high as the ISS, the next day 28th April The Canadian Chime Telescope (which looks like a bunch of discarded curved metal fencing parts.) detected a very intense burst of energy as did an even more low tech telescope, basically a metal pipe with a cake tin on top, one in Utah, one in California, STARE2 radio telescope got the data head-on. The great thing here is that this “Fast Radio Burst” is associated with weaker signals that wouldn’t normally make it across intergalactic space. And has meant that this FRB type event is easily placed at the vicinity of the magnetar.

What is a Magnetar!!!

Magnetars were discovered by accidents on March 5, 1979, several months after

dropping probes into the toxic atmosphere of Venus, two Soviet spacecraft, Venera 11

and 12, were drifting through the inner solar system on an elliptical orbit. at

10:51 A.M. EST, a pulse of gamma radiation hit them. Within a fraction of a millisecond, the radiation level shot above 200,000 counts per second and saturated the equipment, it carried on to hit lots of other spacecraft, (it didn’t make it through the earth’s atmosphere to detection)

The pulse of highly energetic, or “hard,” gamma rays was 100 times as intense as any previous burst of (GRB) gamma rays detected from beyond the solar system, and it lasted just two-tenths of a second. The hard pulse was followed by a fainter glow of lower-energy, or “soft,” gamma rays, as well as x-rays, which steadily faded over the subsequent three minutes. As it faded away, the signal oscillated gently, with a period of eight seconds. Fourteen and a half hours later, at 1:17 A.M. on March 6, another, fainter burst of x-rays came from the same spot on the sky. Over the ensuing four years,

Evgeny P. Mazets of the Ioffe Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, and his collaborators detected 16 bursts coming from the same direction. They varied in intensity, but all were fainter and shorter than the March 5 burst.

Chris Thompson was in high school but would go on to write a paper with Rob Duncan at Princeton that coined the word Magnetar in 1992. They had been thinking theoretically about how a neutron star inherits some magnetic field from the parent star, but how if it was born spinning rapidly the liquid matter (crazy dense neutron crystals) all sloshing around like the mega crazy version of a star generating magnetic fields so crazy that the normal ball shape of atoms would become like spaghetti and X-Ray Photons would merge and split in two. These magnetic fields are by far the strongest we know of in the Universe. They are so strong that they affect the spin of the neutron star. Neutron stars are amazing clocks normally as the periodicity is highly stable, but magnetars are not, the magnetic fields interfere so much, dissipating the energy slowing the spin-down quickly but erratically, with a starquake creating the crust to crack and let out one of these flares of intense energy like seen in the 1979 event. The 8 seconds being a clue as it matched nicely with their theory. It’s like a solar flare on the sun, a flare-up on the crazy surface of a Neutron star the craziest object in the universe.

Fast Radio Bursts RE-CAP

Podcast 137 we went into detail about FRBS

What are FRBs? ...we now probably know.

A fast radio burst (FRB) is an insanely quick radio pulse of length ranging from a fraction of a millisecond to a few milliseconds,

Until now they have been spotted in other galaxies and so the source must be just incredibly powerful, after travelling these intergalactic distances, even though the energy arriving at earth is 1,000s of times less than from a mobile phone on the Moon

So these bursts are a trillion times brighter than the pulsars that we know of.

The story of the first Burst

Duncan Lorimer assigned his student undergraduate David Narkevic to look through archival data taken in 2001 by the Parkes radio dish in Australia, and he found this crazy, 30-jansky* dispersed burst which occurred on 24 July 2001, less than 5 milliseconds in duration, located 3° from the Small Magellanic Cloud. But the really odd thing is when you re-look to that location with any telescope at any frequency there is nothing there! No optical, gamma, infrared ..nada.

*A jansky is named after Karl Guthe Jansky who discovered radio waves being emitted by the milky way in 1931. and is a non-SI unit of spectral flux density, equivalent to 10−26 watts per square metre per hertz. And often combined with Steradians. Like megajanskies per steradian.

Whoops! FRB more like KFC

In 2010 there was a report of 16 similar pulses, clearly of terrestrial origin, detected by the Parkes radio telescope and given the name perytons. In 2015 perytons were shown to be generated when microwave oven doors were opened during a heating cycle, with detected emission being generated by the microwave oven's magnetron tube as it was being powered off

FRB 121102 is a big deal!!

Fast radio bursts are named by the date the signal was recorded, as "FRB YYMMDD".

In November 2015, astronomer Paul Scholz at McGill University in Canada, found ten non-periodically repeated fast radio pulses in archival data gathered in May and June 2015 by the Arecibo radio telescope, The ten bursts had sky positions consistent with an original burst FRB 121102, detected in 2012 …. The first repeater.

The first repeating FRB gave astronomers the chance to hunt down this source region, a star-forming, low-metallicity dwarf galaxy located roughly 3 billion light-years away, remarkably a dimmer, persistent radio source was discovered in the same region that produced the bursts. This has lent support to one theory, FRBs are powered by a magnetized (10^15 G - a PetaGauss) neutron star (Magnetar) born decades ago in a superluminous supernova. widely accepted as a likely explanation for the soft gamma repeaters (SGRs) and anomalous X-ray pulsars (AXPs). There are 29 magnetars known: 15 SGRs (11 confirmed, 4 candidates), and 14 AXPs (12 confirmed, 2 candidates).

Astronomers realised this isn’t a cataclysmic event but something that could repeat. And now it’s been observed to flash more than 150 times and almost certainly tracked it to a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years from Earth.

This is a long way away, this event was happening before the Cambrian explosion, way before the dinosaurs and the energy released in that fraction of a second would be enough to power all of mankind for trillions of years.

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

The end of the alien hypothesis as reported in Podcast #115.

On 9 January 2019, astronomers announced the discovery of a second repeating FRB source, named FRB 180814, by CHIME. Six bursts were detected between August and October 2018, "consistent with originating from a single position on the sky". The detection was made during CHIME's pre-commissioning phase, The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) is an interferometric radio telescope in Canada which looks like a bunch of discarded curved metal fencing parts.

Up until now, none have been found below 700 megahertz. But Chime has detected down to 400 megahertz – the lowest they can detect with CHIME – and in a frequency range where none have been seen before

In a recent paper A Radio Source Coincident with the Superluminous Supernova PTF10hgi: Evidence for a Central Engine and an Analog of the Repeating FRB 121102, the authors looked at 7.5-year-old Superluminous Supanaova and found a radio source previously unseen. the first detection of radio emission coincident with an SLSN on any timescale.

They investigated various scenarios fo cause, star formation, active galactic nucleus, supernova blastwave, none appear likely, instead, it looks very similar to our repeating FRB, could this be the mystery solved? They show that the properties of the radio source are consistent with a magnetar wind nebula or an off-axis jet, indicating the presence of this central engine as a possible cause of the FRB.

Possible Use!!!

As a fast radio burst travels through the universe, it is interacting with electrons and the magnetic field in the universe. There are a lot of different effects which we can study along the line of sight, so when we detect say 10,000 fast radio bursts, we can use this to sort of do a tomography (a technique for displaying a representation of a cross-section through a human body or other solid object using X-rays or ultrasound.) of the universe. We can look through different lines of sight and understand the distribution of matter and magnetic fields in the universe.

Case Closed? ... Not just yet.

This burst was about 1,000 times less energetic than fast radio bursts seen in distant galaxies. And some distant bursts repeat at intervals that can’t easily be explained as coming from a magnetar. Perhaps some, but not all, fast radio bursts come from magnetars

What the hell else are they?

  • Mega Collisions of the bad boys of space, merging black holes or neutron stars

  • Aliens - er it’s never aliens

  • Hyperflares of magnetars

  • Ridiculously energetic supernovae

  • A blitzar: These bad boys magnetar/pulsars would become blackholes but they are spinning so fast the resultant centrifugal force prevents the collapse, but they are doomed, they start to slow and suddenly collapse, The magnetic field is suddenly cut off from it’s suddenly “disappeared” section and instantly released as a blast of energy. But as magnetic field of the pulsar had cleared the surrounding space the black hole does not feed and release any x-rays

  • The dark matter-induced collapse of pulsars

  • Explosive decays of axion miniclusters ( hypothetical elementary particle postulated by the Peccei–Quinn theory in 1977) Non-linear effects in the evolution of the axion field in the early Universe may lead to the formation of gravitationally bound clumps of axions, known as "miniclusters" observed properties (total energy release, duration, high brightness temperature, event rate) of Fast Radio Bursts can be matched in a model which assumes explosive decay of axion miniclusters.

  • Cosmic strings as they interacted with the plasma that permeated the early Universe

  • Black hole explosions, FRBs would be the first detection of quantum gravity effects

  • Strong magnetic field near a supermassive black hole could destabilize the current sheets within a pulsar's magnetosphere, releasing trapped energy

UAE are going to the Moon

The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai has announced plans (going already fo 2 years) to 100% build and operate a 10 kg rover (10% of Chang’e4) called after Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who ruled Dubai at the UAE’s creation in 1971. An international partner will launch and land it. But presumably, this will coincide with the Artemis mission of 2024 but will go ahead even if hose plans change.

6 experiments, including 4 cameras, thermal reading so of the surface, lunar dust measurement, Langmuir probe will study the plasma of charged particles that hovers at the lunar surface

It will land on the near side to aid comms.

Small rover may not survive the night, although that is after a 14 earth day day.

This rover adds robotics to the list of skills that the UAE is rapidly growing in the 14 years of being a space-faring nation.

“Everyone is rushing to go to the Moon, and we want to be a key contributor to these international efforts,” says Al Marzooqi.

NASA plans to pay companies to fly scientific and technical experiments to the Moon beginning in 2021, while the European Space Agency, China, India, Israel, Japan and Russia are among the nations planning to send landers or rovers in the next five years.

Chinas Plan!!!

Chang’e 5 is going to bring rock back!!!

“To take it to the next level and return samples from the Moon is a significant technological capability,” says Carolyn van der Bogert, a planetary geologist at the University of Münster, Germany.

Delayed from 2017, with problems with the Long March 5, which was the success story of December 2019 when they seem to have full sorted this out allowing them to send an orbiter, lander and rover to Mars and test their manned capsule.

Take off on 24th November from Wenchang, I wonder if we’ll get another exciting moment of “where the hell are the bits of this massive rocket going to land (the last one narrowly missed US cities before crashing on land in the African coastline)

Chang’e-5 includes a lander, ascender, orbiter and returner. After the spacecraft enters the Moon’s orbit, the lander-and-ascender pair will split off and descend close to the unexplored Mons Rümker, a 1,300-metre-high volcanic complex in the northern region of Oceanus Procellarum

It will drill 2m down, scoop up 2kg of moon regolith with a robotic arm, place that into a canister on an ascender vehicle. All this has to be done in that 14 earth day moon day to avoid the super cold night.

The ascender will get back into lunar orbit and rendezvous with the returner craft (much like the apollo 11 mission, also great training for a Chinese apollo 11 type attempt)

The Chang’e 5 returner will come back to earth by December and parachute the payload back to Inner Mongolia.

The Lunar samples will be stored at the Chinese Academy of Sciences National Astronomical Observatory of China (NAOC) in Beijing, some being kept at another site for safety and some for display!!! But it will probably all stay in China!! Anyone can get there hands on apollo samples with a good enough reason, except the Chinese.

They are important as clearly the hold secrets about how the surface evolves more than the apollo missions because of the region where they are taken, as this might be more recent volcanic activity. If this is the case and the sample shows volcanic activity only 2 billion years old it will be VERY significant.

The moon is also a standard candle for crater counting and ageing planets. This data could improve that process. Getting material from an exact spot with an exact crater count, only possible so far on the moon.





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