If you’re one of the fortunate few who has safely watched an incoming meteor or bolide from a close distance, you may be one of the lucky people to have heard the sounds of a dying space rock. Some witnesses report a sonic boom, but many say the slower meteors emit a hiss or a buzz that scientists attribute to the very low frequency radio waves they generate – sounds that are still powerful enough to break glass or cause plants to vibrate. Those are some pretty powerful radio waves. Now, imagine if this space rock was a planet and it was on a death plunger into its star. Some researchers now claim that planet’s ‘screaming’ radio waves just may be loud enough to be causing those mysterious fast radio bursts we still don’’t have a good explanation for. Could this be it?
“Previous studies suggest that the periodicity of FRBs is likely associated with neutron star (NS) binary systems. Here we introduce a new model which proposes that periodic repeating FRBs are due to the interaction of a NS with its planet in a highly elliptical orbit.”
In a new study published in Astrophysics Journal, Nanjing University astronomer and lead author Yong-Feng Huang and his colleagues were toying with new ways to explain repeating fast radio bursts that appear unexpectedly and quickly but sometimes in a repeating pattern. While recent other studies push magnetars (highly magnetic neutron stars) as their cause, Huang thought another space object had to be involved for an FRB to repeat. As he explains in Science News, neutron stars, which are collapsed giant stars, can still have planets orbiting them. If the planet gets close – possibly drawn in by the tremendous gravitational force – it can be slowly pulled apart, sending huge chucks hurdling into the neutron star.
Huang likens what happens next to a fireworks show, as the chunks of disintegrating planet get pulled through the wind of radiation and particles spewing out of the dying neutron star. The collision of planet chucks and neutron star wind “can produce really strong radio emissions.” Strong enough to send a fast radio burst towards Earth?
“During this process, the fragments interact with the pulsar wind via the Alfvén wing mechanism to give birth to FRBs.”
If the planetary chunk passes through the pulsar wind while in front of the neutron star from Earth’s perspective, an FRB can be produced. While the chuck gets only one shot at making one, the planet is in a tight orbit and will make a crumbling pass regularly – creating more chunks and more FRBs until it plunges to its death or break completely apart. It sounds possible, but Huan knew he needed real evidence to support the theory. That came from the first FRB (FRB 121102 discovered in 2007) which repeats every 160 days, and a more recent one (FRB 180916) that repeats every 16 days. A model of a fragmenting planet scenario showed both could be creating FRBs via the death screams of a crumbling planet.
While we wait for confirmation, “The Screams of Dying Planets” would make a great name for a prog rock song.