Mysterious blasts of energy from space could be coming from tag-teams of magnetars and disc-wielding stars. 

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), first detected in 2007, contain as much energy in 5 milliseconds as the sun puts out in a month. Hundreds have been found since then, but their origin has remained a mystery.

Perhaps until now. Two new papers say they appear to come from a “complex magnetised site” no bigger than the distance between the sun and Earth (while that sounds huge, it’s not really on an intergalactic scale). 

Using the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) in China to monitor an FRB called 20201124A. One of the most active FRBs, they picked up nearly 1900 bursts in just under two months. 

Previous analysis of 20201124A had determined it was likely a magnetar – a type of neutron star with an incredibly strong magnetic field, pumping out gamma and X-rays. 

Neutron stars are the extremely hot and dense collapsed cores of supergiants after they’ve gone supernova. They’re tiny – about 10km across – but pack up to 25 times the mass of the sun.

But a closer look at the data in the latest studies suggests 20201124A isn’t just a magnetar – but a binary system of a magnetar and a ‘Be star’. Be stars are bigger than the sun, but not too big, and have a disc or ring of stuff they’ve ejected, thanks to their rapid rotation. 

“Considering the interaction between a Be star disk and FRBs, we can naturally explain the mysterious features of FRB 20201124A,” one of the papers – published in Nature Communications – said.

“This study will prompt to search for FRB signals from Be/X-ray binaries.”

FRBs were first linked to magnetars in 2020. The first one found in 2007 actually happened in 2001, and was discovered by an astronomer who noticed something strange in data collected by an observatory in Australia.