The secrets of the universe are a step closer to being unlocked, after an Australian-led team of astronomers found the source of a mysterious, one-off radio wave.
Using the power of the CSIRO’s new radio telescope set-up in Western Australia, they found the exact location of a single fast radio burst (a transient radio pulse that lasts less than one millisecond) and it’s 3.6 billion lightyears away in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way.
The theories surrounding the cause of the bursts are varied: Some say they originate from black holes or neutron stars. There’s also the school of thought they originate from extraterrestrial life forces.
While we don’t know what (or who) creates the bursts, narrowing down the location is a huge breakthrough in the field, CSIRO lead author Keith Bannister said.
“If we were to stand on the moon and look down at the Earth with this precision, we would be able to tell not only which city the burst came from, but which postcode – and even which city block,” Dr Bannister said in releasing the findings on Thursday.
Fast radio bursts (or FRBs as they’re known in astro-lingo) through their matter, hold answers to some of the biggest questions in astronomy, like how big is the universe.
The CSIRO’s telescope, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, captured the burst through a third-party platform developed by Dr Bannister’s team, which allowed them to enlist other equipment to find its location.
Once the burst was captured, the galaxy home of FRB 180924 was ‘photographed’ by three optical telescopes: European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, the Keck telescope in Hawaii and the Gemini South telescope, also in Chile.
It produced a high-resolution map that showed the FRB came from the outskirts of a galaxy in the constellation Grus.
Bursting onto the space scene
Fast radio bursts were first detected in 2007 through a review of data collected a couple of years before by the Parkes telescope in New South Wales.
Since then, they’ve captured the fascination of astronomers. A further 85 have been have been found since then – 62 of them by Australian telescopes. There’s about 2000 FRBs a day, but telescopes can only catch so many of them.
Most the FRBs are one-offs, like 180924, but there’s also been two “repeaters”. The first was found in 2012, and was traced back to a very small galaxy, which provides two reasons why this discovery is so exciting for the sphere of astronomy.
Team member Adam Deller, of Swinburne University of Technology, said when they examined the image of FRB 180924’s galaxy neighbourhood, they found it was not only much bigger, but markedly different to where the repeater FRB came from.
“This suggests that fast radio bursts can be produced in a variety of environments, or that the seemingly one-off bursts detected so far by (CSIRO’s telescope) are generated by a different mechanism to the repeater,” Dr Deller said.
The CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder spreads 36 dish radio telescopes across six kilometres, and has been crafted especially as a one-off FRB hunter.