Source of Mysterious Radio Waves Detected

Source of mysterious radio waves detected. (Image:  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Source of mysterious radio waves detected. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

A team of international astronomers has pinpointed the precise position of one of the most mysterious phenomena in the cosmos: a fast radio burst (FRB). As the name suggests, fast radio bursts are short-lived, but powerful, pulses of radio waves from space that last for only fractions of a second.

First discovery and speculation of source

The first FRB was discovered in 2007, in archived data from the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. Astronomers were searching for new examples of magnetized neutron stars called pulsars, but found a new phenomenon — a radio burst from 2001. Since then, 18 FRBs have been found.

The first FRB was discovered in 2007, in archived data from the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. (Image: Diceman via wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The first FRB was discovered in 2007 in archived data from the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. (Image: Diceman via wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Astronomers believed these flashes were coming from incredibly powerful sources. Some thought they were coming from cataclysmic events in the deep universe, such as a hypernova or a supermassive black hole ejecting material. Others argued that fast radio bursts originated from pulsars surrounded by galactic dust or intense magnetic events in our own Milky Way galaxy.

The problem was that these blasts of radio light were also infinitesimally brief, lasting only a few milliseconds — which made them extremely difficult to locate, especially given that radio telescopes can only look at a small patch of sky at a time.

Astronomers pinpoint source as small dwarf glaxy

After years of painstaking observations, astronomers finally pinpointed the origin of an FRB. Named FRB 121102, it was first discovered by scientists at the massive Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Named FRB 121102, it was first discovered by scientists at the massive Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Named FRB 121102, it was first discovered by scientists at the massive Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

After watching FRB 121102 for 83 hours over six months, the astronomers picked up nine bursts from the same spot. Together, those flashes of light allowed them to pinpoint the location — and then use the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii to study its source. The source turned out to be a dwarf galaxy some 3 billion light years away that holds about a hundredth of our Milky Way’s mass.

Homing in on source of mysterious cosmic radio bursts

Homing in on source of mysterious cosmic radio bursts. (Image: McGill Space Institute)

McGill University postdoctoral researcher Shriharsh Tendulkar, one of the astronomers who located the burst, said in a statement:

The team has published their findings in the journal Nature and has outlined them at the 229th American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Grapevine, Texas.

McGill postdoctoral researcher Shriharsh Tendulkar at AAS press conference (Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NRC | Peter Michaud)

McGill postdoctoral researcher Shriharsh Tendulkar at AAS press conference (Image: Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NRC | Peter Michaud)

Since this is the only known repeating burst, it’s possible it could represent a completely different phenomenon to other FRBs. Further research will be needed to clarify the nature of the flashes, and to determine whether all FRBs are caused by the same phenomenon or have different causes.

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