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A fast radio burst’s unlikely source may be a cluster of old stars

In a galaxy not so far away, astronomers have located a surprising source of a mysterious, rapid radio signal.

The signal, a repeating fast radio burst, or FRB, was observed over several months in 2021, allowing astronomers to pinpoint its location to a globular cluster — a tight, spherical cluster of stars — in M81, a massive spiral galaxy 12 million light-years away. The findings, published February 23 in Nature, are challenging astronomers’ assumptions of what objects create FRBs.

“This is a very revolutionary discovery,” says Bing Zhang, an astronomer at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who was not involved in the study. “It is exciting to see an FRB from a globular cluster. That is not the favorited place people imagined.”

Astronomers have been puzzling over these mysterious cosmic radio signals, which typically last less than a millisecond, since their discovery in 2007 (SN: 7/25/14). But in 2020, an FRB was seen in our own galaxy, helping scientists determine one source must be magnetars — young, highly magnetized neutron stars with magnetic fields a trillion times as strong as Earth’s (SN: 6/4/20).

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