Astronomers Find Mystery Telescope Data Came From Heating Up Lunch

Image Credit: David McClenaghan, CSIRO via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Sometimes, a rogue radio signal detected by astronomers is the result of aliens trying to make contact with Earth. Other times, it’s just a coworker trying to heat up her lunch. 

This is what a group of researchers working at the CSIRO Parkes Observatory in Australia discovered after more than 15 years of studying fast radio bursts—intermittent pulses of radio waves from space that only last a few seconds—using the facility's 200-foot-wide radio telescope. Every once in a while, an errant signal would be detected, throwing a wrench in the team's data. 

In a new paper, the lab group describes “perytons,” transient signals that look similar to the astrophysical pulses as detected through cold plasma. Mysteriously, these signals usually seemed to be picked up around lunchtime. Sadly, these weren't coming from aliens hoping to break bread with us. The radio pulses were generated by the microwave in the staff kitchen. 

In the scientists’ words:

A peryton can be generated at 1.4 GHz when a microwave oven door is opened prematurely and the telescope is at an appropriate relative angle. Radio emission escaping from microwave ovens during the magnetron shut-down phase neatly explain all of the observed properties of the peryton signals.

There were three microwave ovens near the telescope, plus another two microwaves housed half a mile away. Even as these astronomers conducted tests hunting for the source of their mysterious radio waves, rogue microwaving got in the way. The researchers heated a cup of water in the microwave in the tower beneath the telescope while it was running, and were surprised to detect a single peryton. “The detection of radiation from the tower microwave would be very surprising as the tower is shielded on the windows and in the walls and the dish surface blocks the line of sight to the receiver in the cabin at the prime focus,” they write. They later discovered that someone else was using the microwave in the staff kitchen at the time. In a later trial, they opened the same microwave before it finished its heating cycle, producing three perytons. The scientists succeeded in creating these errant signals with their microwaves about 50 percent of the time. 

On the bright side, the researchers were able to document notable differences between these decidedly terrestrial perytons and the supposedly cosmic fast radio bursts, giving them reason to believe that the FRBs are genuine astrophysical signals, not just the sign of someone’s ramen being ready. Still, astronomers working at Parkes may be eating cold lunches for a while. 

[h/t: Nature]

How Often Is 'Once in a Blue Moon'? Let Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain

From “lit” to “I can’t even,” lots of colloquialisms make no sense. But not all confusing phrases stem from Millennial mouths. Take, for example, “once in a blue moon”—an expression you’ve likely heard uttered by teachers, parents, newscasters, and even scientists. This term is often used to describe a rare phenomenon—but why?

Even StarTalk Radio host Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t know for sure. “I have no idea why a blue moon is called a blue moon,” he tells Mashable. “There is nothing blue about it at all.”

A blue moon is the second full moon to appear in a single calendar month. Astronomy dictates that two full moons can technically occur in one month, so long as the first moon rises early in the month and the second appears around the 30th or 31st. This type of phenomenon occurs every couple years or so. So taken literally, “Once in a blue moon” must mean "every few years"—even if the term itself is often used to describe something that’s even more rare.

[h/t Mashable]

Neutron Star Collision Sheds Light on the Strange Matter That Weighs a Billion Tons Per Teaspoon
Two neutron stars collide.
Two neutron stars collide.

Neutron stars are among the many mysteries of the universe scientists are working to unravel. The celestial bodies are incredibly dense, and their dramatic deaths are one of the main sources of the universe’s gold. But beyond that, not much is known about neutron stars, not even their size or what they’re made of. A new stellar collision reported earlier this year may shed light on the physics of these unusual objects.

As Science News reports, the collision of two neutron stars—the remaining cores of massive stars that have collapsed—were observed via light from gravitational waves. When the two small stars crossed paths, they merged to create one large object. The new star collapsed shortly after it formed, but exactly how long it took to perish reveals keys details of its size and makeup.

One thing scientists know about neutron stars is that they’re really, really dense. When stars become too big to support their own mass, they collapse, compressing their electrons and protons together into neutrons. The resulting neutron star fits all that matter into a tight space—scientists estimate that one teaspoon of the stuff inside a neutron star would weigh a billion tons.

This type of matter is impossible to recreate and study on Earth, but scientists have come up with a few theories as to its specific properties. One is that neutron stars are soft and yielding like stellar Play-Doh. Another school of thought posits that the stars are rigid and equipped to stand up to extreme pressure.

According to simulations, a soft neutron star would take less time to collapse than a hard star because they’re smaller. During the recently recorded event, astronomers observed a brief flash of light between the neutron stars’ collision and collapse. This indicates that a new spinning star, held together by the speed of its rotation, existed for a few milliseconds rather than collapsing immediately and vanishing into a black hole. This supports the hard neutron star theory.

Armed with a clearer idea of the star’s composition, scientists can now put constraints on their size range. One group of researchers pegged the smallest possible size for a neutron star with 60 percent more mass than our sun at 13.3 miles across. At the other end of the spectrum, scientists are determining that the biggest neutron stars become smaller rather than larger. In the collision, a larger star would have survived hours or potentially days, supported by its own heft, before collapsing. Its short existence suggests it wasn’t so huge.

Astronomers now know more about neutron stars than ever before, but their mysterious nature is still far from being fully understood. The matter at their core, whether free-floating quarks or subatomic particles made from heavier quarks, could change all of the equations that have been written up to this point. Astronomers will continue to search the skies for clues that demystify the strange objects.

[h/t Science News]


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