Astronomers using the Very Long Baseline Array (which includes an antenna on the slopes of Maunakea) have made the first measurement of the distance to a magnetar within our Milky Way Galaxy. Magnetars are a special type of neutron star, the superdense remains of massive stars that exploded as supernovae, with magnetic fields a trillion times stronger than those of the Earth’s. These objects are not only the most magnetic objects in the Universe, but they can also emit strong bursts of radiation, and thus have recently become a leading candidate for the source of a mysterious astrophysical phenomenon known as Fast Radio Bursts or FRBs (incredibly energetic bursts of radio emission that last for a few milliseconds). By viewing this magnetar from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, the researchers were able to detect a slight shift in its apparent position with respect to background stars. This effect, called parallax, allows them to use geometry to directly calculate the object’s distance. Having precise distances to magnetars is important, as it means that we can accurately calculate the strength of the bursts of radiation they produce, and determine if the extreme environment of a magnetar could in fact generate FRB phenomenon.
Read more, in the VLBA press release.