Australian telescope pokes holes in what little we think we know about fast radio bursts

Data from the CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope, in Western Australia, has raised questions on one of the few things astronomers thought we knew about the mysterious cosmic objects known as “fast radio bursts” (FRBs).

Researchers led by Dr Marcin Glowacki from WA’s Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) detected a new FRB in a nearby galaxy that has a very important difference in its characteristics compared to other FRBs.

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Fast radio bursts are characterised by intense, transient flashes of energy in the form of radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation. These flashes can release as much energy in a few milliseconds as our sun will release in 80 years.

The first FRB was discovered in 2007 using another CSIRO-operated telescope on the other side of the country: the Parkes radio telescope, Murriyang in New South Wales.

What causes FRBs is a mystery. But, up until now, they have been found in the midst of galactic tumult, suggesting that such extreme conditions as galaxies merging or colliding are necessary to produce the enigmatic phenomena.

The new findings challenge this idea.

“Of the radio bursts where we’ve studied their host galaxies in detail, we’ve seen colliding and merging galaxies. In this research, we aren’t seeing those same clear signals of a turbulent galaxy,” Dr Glowacki says.

“What we’ve seen is that the host galaxy itself appears undisturbed, quiet even. This suggests that either a massive star that caused the fast radio burst was born another way, or that this powerful burst was created by something else entirely.”

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The new FRB, dubbed FRB 211127, is located in a spiral galaxy more than 600 million lightyears from Earth.

“Each of ASKAP’s 36 dish antennas is equipped with a specialised receiver that radio astronomers can steer to efficiently map the sky,” says Dr George Heald, Science Program Director for CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility. “This helps researchers produce some of the best radio astronomy data in the world, to better understand the universe.”

So far, study of the host galaxy is only possible for a few FRBs.

“Research like this is necessary for studying the environments around the mysterious radio bursts, as galaxies are made up of more than just stars,” says Dr Karen Lee-Waddell, Director of the Australian SKA Regional Centre. “We are keen to study fast radio bursts and their host galaxies in great detail, not just to solve an intergalactic mystery but because they can tell us more about the structure and evolution of galaxy systems.”

The new research is published in the Astrophysical Journal.

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