Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are brief radio signals that last on the order of milliseconds. They appear to be extragalactic, coming from small, point-like areas on the sky. Some FRBs are one-off events, while others are periodic or “repeating”. The sources of FRBs are still unknown, but binary neutron star systems might be a piece of the puzzle.
Any proposed model for a repeating FRB must explain a number of observed behaviors. Among them are the following:
1) Repeating bursts from a given FRB source are consistent in frequency and overall intensity on the timescale of years.
2) Bursts exhibit small-scale variations in measures of the source’s magnetic environment.
3) FRBs seem to be preferentially hosted in massive, Milky-Way-like galaxies.
Binary neutron stars (BNSs) have been considered as possible solutions to the repeating FRB puzzle. Specifically, binary neutron star mergers might produce FRBs, along with gamma-ray bursts and gravitational waves. But how could BNSs produce repeating, consistent FRBs?
In a recent study, Bing Zhang (University of Nevada Las Vegas; Kyoto University, Japan) attempts to explain repeating FRBs using BNSs in a novel way. Instead of considering the neutron-star merger itself, Zhang examined whether the years leading up to the merger could produce repeating FRBs.
Repeating FRBs put out an enormous amount of energy over a few milliseconds — at least as much energy as the Sun puts out over three days. To put constraints on the average FRB-producing BNS, Zhang used the double-pulsar system PSR J0737-3039A/B (pulsars are fast-rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields), which is very well characterized in terms of its component stars and overall structure.
Aside from having enormous amounts of rotational energy intrinsically and in their orbits, BNSs also have strong magnetic fields. These magnetic fields are key to the production of FRBs in Zhang’s scenario — as the neutron stars orbit each other, their magnetic fields interact, possibly triggering a flow of particles that would produce FRBs.
On the scale of centuries or even decades pre-merger, these triggers could occur repeatedly and consistently, satisfying a key requirement for repeating FRBs. This picture of interacting magnetic fields would also explain the small-scale variations in the magnetic environment measures, and there is an overlap between the sorts of galaxies that host FRBs and those that host the gamma-ray bursts that could be associated with BNS mergers.
Source: “Signals from Neutron Star Binaries” AAS NOVA, 27 March 2020.<https://aasnova.org/2020/03/27/signals-from-neutron-star-binaries/>