Fast radio bursts are quick, bright flashes of radio waves originating from an unknown source in space. They are a mysterious phenomenon that last only a few milliseconds, and they had never been observed live – until a team of astronomers, using CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope in eastern Australia managed to change that.
Even though the bursts were over almost as soon as they began, the crew of astronomers, headed by Emily Petroff of CSIRO and Swinburne University of Technology, managed to spot it happening in real time.
Only seven fast radio bursts had previously been discovered – amazingly, some were only detected a decade after they happened.
Petroff’s team credited their success to the development of new instrumentation, which decreased the time between observation and discovery of fast radio bursts from years to seconds.
Fast radio bursts are “one of the biggest mysteries in the universe”, says Carnegie Observatories’ Acting Director John Mulchaey. While the source of the bursts is remains unknown, whatever caused them was up to 5.5 billion light years away, meaning it “could have given off as much energy in a few milliseconds as the Sun does in a day”, according to Dr. Daniele Malesani of the University of Copenhagen.
Such a large amount of energy suggests a cataclysmic event, such as the implosion of an extraordinarily fast spinning, gigantic neutron star as it collapses into a black hole.
Although nothing new was learned this time, an explanation of their source is only a matter of time. Astronomers were at least left a clue to its origins. The radio waves had a unique polarisation – the direction in which electromagnetic waves oscillate – suggesting that there was a magnetic field in the vicinity of their origin.
“We’ve set the trap,” says Petroff, whose findings were published by the Royal Astronomical Society. “Now we just have to wait for another burst to fall into it.”