Scientists trace the origin of mysterious fast radio burst for the first time, revealing its home galaxy sits 3.6 BILLION light-years away
- Scientists have pinpointed source of a one-off fast radio burst for the first time
- In the past, only one has been traced to its origin, and that was repeating signal
- Team says burst that occurred in 2018 comes from galaxy 3.6 bn light years away
Scientists have, for the first time, pinpointed the source of a mysterious one-off pulse of cosmic energy known as a fast radio burst.
Fast radio bursts (FRBs) have perplexed researchers for years, appearing as fleeting signals from the distant universe that can’t yet be explained definitively.
It’s thought that these brief flashes may come from black holes or neutron stars, though some have even speculated they may be of alien origin.
While scientists recently were able to trace the origin of a repeating FRB, which pulsed numerous times over a span of months, finding the source of a single burst that lasts less than a millisecond is far more challenging.
In a remarkable breakthrough, an Australian-led team with the Gemini South telescope in Chile says they’ve traced a single FRB to a galaxy roughly 3.6 billion light-years away.
Scientists have, for the first time, pinpointed the source of a mysterious one-off pulse of cosmic energy known as a fast radio burst. The artist’s impression above shows the signal and its origin billions of light years away
‘It is especially challenging to pinpoint FRBs that only flash once and are gone,’ says Keith Bannister of Australia’s Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), who led the Australian team.
The one-off FRB, known as FRB 180924, was spotted in September 2018 using the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope.
This radio telescope array has 36 antennas working together as a single instrument to scour the skies for FRBs.
By calculating the minute differences in the amount of time light reaches each of the 36 antennas, the team says it was able to trace the burst back to its home.
‘From these tiny time differences — just a fraction of a billionth of a second — we identified the burst’s home galaxy,’ said team member Adam Deller, of Swinburne University of Technology.
The team then further analyzed the distance and other characteristics using Gemini South telescope, along with the W.M. Keck Observatory and European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).
‘The Gemini South data absolutely confirmed that the light left the galaxy about 4 billion years ago,’ said Nicolas Tejos of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, who led the Gemini observations.
‘When we managed to get a position for FRB 180924 that was good to 0.1 arcsecond, we knew that it would tell us not just which object was the host galaxy, but also where within the host galaxy it occurred,’ said Deller.
‘We found that the FRB was located away from the galaxy’s core, out in the ‘galactic suburbs.”’
In a remarkable breakthrough, an Australian-led team with the Gemini South telescope in Chile says they’ve traced a single FRB to a galaxy roughly 3.6 billion light-years away. The FRB was spotted in Sept 2018 using the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder radio telescope
The breakthrough could be a step toward finally understanding what gives rise to FRBs in the first place, the researchers say.
It could also lead to more efficient ways of pinpointing their origins.
‘Much like gamma-ray bursts two decades ago, or the more recent detection of gravitational wave events, we stand on the cusp of an exciting new era where we are about to learn where fast radio bursts take place,’ said team member Stuart Ryder of Macquarie University, Australia.
‘Ultimately though, our goal is to use FRBs as cosmological probes, in much the same way that we use gamma ray bursts, quasars, and supernovae.’
WHAT ARE FAST RADIO BURSTS AND WHY DO WE STUDY THEM?
Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are radio emissions that appear temporarily and randomly, making them not only hard to find, but also hard to study.
The mystery stems from the fact it is not known what could produce such a short and sharp burst.
This has led some to speculate they could be anything from stars colliding to artificially created messages.
Scientists searching for fast radio bursts (FRBs) that some believe may be signals sent from aliens may be happening every second. The blue points in this artist’s impression of the filamentary structure of galaxies are signals from FRBs
The first FRB was spotted, or rather ‘heard’ by radio telescopes, back in 2001 but wasn’t discovered until 2007 when scientists were analysing archival data.
But it was so temporary and seemingly random that it took years for astronomers to agree it wasn’t a glitch in one of the telescope’s instruments.
Researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics point out that FRBs can be used to study the structure and evolution of the universe whether or not their origin is fully understood.
A large population of faraway FRBs could act as probes of material across gigantic distances.
This intervening material blurs the signal from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the left over radiation from the Big Bang.
A careful study of this intervening material should give an improved understanding of basic cosmic constituents, such as the relative amounts of ordinary matter, dark matter and dark energy, which affect how rapidly the universe is expanding.
FRBs can also be used to trace what broke down the ‘fog’ of hydrogen atoms that pervaded the early universe into free electrons and protons, when temperatures cooled down after the Big Bang.