Mysterious, fast cosmic radio burst caught live in a first for science

20 Jan 2015

An illustration of the cosmic radio waves reaching the Parkes radio telescope in eastern Australia. Image via Swinburne Astronomy Productions

For the first time, a team of Australian astronomers has recorded a cosmic radio burst live from a distant galaxy, indicating a power source multiple times that of our own sun.

These as-of-yet unexplained radio bursts last only a few milliseconds, making them understandably difficult to capture. Until now they had only been recorded months or years after they happened. The first was recorded back in 2007.

Now, however, the team using the Parkes radio telescope in eastern Australia has been able to finally capture one of the most sought-after cosmic events right in the act.

According to the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), it is now a matter for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to determine the exact distance of the origin of the source, something which has been troubling to determine in the past.

Setting the trap for future bursts

From their judgment, however, the researchers, led by Emily Petroff, believe the burst could have occurred as far away as 5.5bn light years and in those few milliseconds of burst, would have produced as much power as our sun produces in an entire Earth day.

As for what causes these extreme bursts of radio waves, the team believes the most likely candidates could be gamma-ray bursts or giant solar flares from highly magnetised stars known as magnetars or even imploding neutron stars.

What remains puzzling for astronomers now is its recording of the source having a 20pc polarisation – the first time it has been recorded in these bursts – indicating that the source exists in a strong magnetic field.

Petroff said now that researchers know what they’re looking for, it’s only a matter of time before they find another similar burst.

“We’ve set the trap. Now we just have to wait for another burst to fall into it,” said Petroff.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic