From The California Institute of Technology: “Cosmic Radio Pulses Probe Hidden Matter Around Galaxies” 

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From The California Institute of Technology

July 04, 2022

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Distant Fast Radio Bursts piercing the gaseous dark matter halos of galaxies in the local universe. Credit: Courtesy of Charles Carter.

Powerful radio pulses originating deep in the cosmos can be used to study hidden pools of gas cocooning nearby galaxies, according to a new study appearing in the journal Nature.

So-called fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are pulses of radio waves that typically originate millions to billions of light-years away (radio waves are electromagnetic radiation like the light we see with our eyes but have longer wavelengths and frequencies). The first FRB was discovered in 2007, and since then, hundreds more have been found. In 2020, Caltech’s STARE2 instrument (Survey for Transient Astronomical Radio Emission 2) and Canada’s CHIME (Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment) detected a massive FRB that went off in our own Milky Way galaxy.

Those earlier results helped confirm the theory that the energetic events most likely originate from dead, magnetized stars called magnetars.

As more and more FRBs roll in, researchers are now asking how they can be used to study the gas that lies between us and the bursts. In particular, they would like to use the FRBs to probe halos of diffuse gas that surround galaxies. As the radio pulses travel toward Earth, the gas enveloping the galaxies is expected to slow the waves down and disperse the radio frequencies. In the new study, the researchers looked at a sample of 474 distant FRBs detected by CHIME, which has discovered the most FRBs to date, and showed that the subset of two dozen FRBs that passed through galactic halos were indeed slowed down more than non-intersecting FRBs.

“Our study shows that FRBs can act as skewers of all the matter between our radio telescopes and the source of the radio waves,” says lead author Liam Connor, the Tolman Postdoctoral Scholar Research Associate in Astronomy, who works with assistant professor of astronomy and study co-author, Vikram Ravi.

“We have used fast radio bursts to shine a light through the halos of galaxies near the Milky Way and measure their hidden material,” Connor says.

The study also reports finding more matter around the galaxies than expected—specifically, about twice as much gas as theoretical models predicted.

All galaxies are surrounded and fed by massive pools of gas out of which they were born. However, the gas is very thin and hard to detect. “These gaseous reservoirs are enormous. If the human eye could see the spherical halo that surrounds the nearby Andromeda galaxy, the halo would appear one thousand times larger than the moon,” Connor says.

Researchers have developed different techniques to study the hidden halos. For instance, Caltech professor of physics Christopher Martin and his team developed an instrument at the W. M. Keck Observatory called the Keck Cosmic Webb Imager (KCWI) that can probe the filaments of gas that stream into galaxies from the halos.

This new FRB method allows astronomers to measure the total amount of material in the halos, which will help piece together a picture of how galaxies grow and evolve over cosmic time.

“This is just the start,” says Ravi. “As we discover more FRBs, our techniques can be applied to study individual halos of different sizes and in different environments, addressing the unsolved problem of how matter is distributed in the universe.”

In the future, the FRB discoveries are expected to continue streaming in. Caltech’s 110-dish Deep Synoptic Array, or DSA-110, has already detected several FRBs and identified their host galaxies. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), this project is located at Caltech’s Owen Valley Radio Observatory near Bishop, California.

In the coming years, Caltech researchers have plans to build an even bigger array, the DSA-2000, which will include 2,000 dishes and be the most powerful radio observatory ever built. The DSA-2000, currently being designed with funding from Schmidt Futures and the NSF, will detect and identify the source of thousands of FRBs per year.

The science paper is published in Nature.

See the full article here .


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The The California Institute of Technology is a private research university in Pasadena, California. The university is known for its strength in science and engineering, and is one among a small group of institutes of technology in the United States which is primarily devoted to the instruction of pure and applied sciences.

The California Institute of Technology was founded as a preparatory and vocational school by Amos G. Throop in 1891 and began attracting influential scientists such as George Ellery Hale, Arthur Amos Noyes, and Robert Andrews Millikan in the early 20th century. The vocational and preparatory schools were disbanded and spun off in 1910 and the college assumed its present name in 1920. In 1934, The California Institute of Technology was elected to the Association of American Universities, and the antecedents of National Aeronautics and Space Administration ‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which The California Institute of Technology continues to manage and operate, were established between 1936 and 1943 under Theodore von Kármán.

The California Institute of Technology has six academic divisions with strong emphasis on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. First-year students are required to live on campus, and 95% of undergraduates remain in the on-campus House System at The California Institute of Technology. Although The California Institute of Technology has a strong tradition of practical jokes and pranks, student life is governed by an honor code which allows faculty to assign take-home examinations. The The California Institute of Technology Beavers compete in 13 intercollegiate sports in the NCAA Division III’s Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC).

As of October 2020, there are 76 Nobel laureates who have been affiliated with The California Institute of Technology, including 40 alumni and faculty members (41 prizes, with chemist Linus Pauling being the only individual in history to win two unshared prizes). In addition, 4 Fields Medalists and 6 Turing Award winners have been affiliated with The California Institute of Technology. There are 8 Crafoord Laureates and 56 non-emeritus faculty members (as well as many emeritus faculty members) who have been elected to one of the United States National Academies. Four Chief Scientists of the U.S. Air Force and 71 have won the United States National Medal of Science or Technology. Numerous faculty members are associated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as well as National Aeronautics and Space Administration. According to a 2015 Pomona College study, The California Institute of Technology ranked number one in the U.S. for the percentage of its graduates who go on to earn a PhD.

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The California Institute of Technology is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very High Research Activity”. Caltech was elected to The Association of American Universities in 1934 and remains a research university with “very high” research activity, primarily in STEM fields. The largest federal agencies contributing to research are National Aeronautics and Space Administration; National Science Foundation; Department of Health and Human Services; Department of Defense, and Department of Energy.

In 2005, The California Institute of Technology had 739,000 square feet (68,700 m^2) dedicated to research: 330,000 square feet (30,700 m^2) to physical sciences, 163,000 square feet (15,100 m^2) to engineering, and 160,000 square feet (14,900 m^2) to biological sciences.

In addition to managing NASA-JPL/Caltech , The California Institute of Technology also operates the Caltech Palomar Observatory; the Owens Valley Radio Observatory;the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory; the W. M. Keck Observatory at the Mauna Kea Observatory; the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory at Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington; and Kerckhoff Marine Laboratory in Corona del Mar, California. The Institute launched the Kavli Nanoscience Institute at The California Institute of Technology in 2006; the Keck Institute for Space Studies in 2008; and is also the current home for the Einstein Papers Project. The Spitzer Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center located on The California Institute of Technology campus, is the data analysis and community support center for NASA’s Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope [no longer in service].

The California Institute of Technology partnered with University of California at Los Angeles to establish a Joint Center for Translational Medicine (UCLA-Caltech JCTM), which conducts experimental research into clinical applications, including the diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cancer.

The California Institute of Technology operates several Total Carbon Column Observing Network stations as part of an international collaborative effort of measuring greenhouse gases globally. One station is on campus.