Researchers mystified by repeating radio bursts in deep space

3 Mar 2016

A team of researchers has been left somewhat perplexed by the origin of ‘fast radio bursts’, which appear to be coming from deep space and go against our current scientific understanding.

The fast radio bursts (FRBs) discovered by researchers from McGill University in the US are not uncommon in the context of signals found when turning our telescopes to parts of the universe, but this particular instance definitely is.

Until now, all discoveries of FRBs have been one-off events, with the most likely origin suggested by researchers being a major cataclysmic happening in space, like a star exploding into a supernova, or a neutron star collapsing into a black hole.

FRBs are so hot right now

In fact, FRBs were only recently used to confirm the cosmological model that there is indeed ‘missing matter’ out there in the universe that we simply can’t see.

The same major cataclysmic events presumed to be responsible for FRBs have created the recently-discovered gravitational waves that are being heralded as one of the most important scientific discoveries for decades.

However, in one region of space recently listened to, a series of FRBs are leaving researchers scratching their heads as, for the first time, there has been a detection of repeating short-duration bursts of radio waves from a mysterious source, likely located well beyond the edge of our Milky Way galaxy.

I’m not saying it’s aliens, but, aliens

Of course, while our first hopes for any mysterious source of radio signals is to wish it to be of intelligent origin – like the Wow! Signal – the initial findings suggest a more plausible scientific source.

According to the research team, the most likely origin of these bursts is a very exotic object, such as a rotating neutron star of ‘unprecedented power’ that enables the emission of extremely bright pulses.

The PhD researcher who found the oddity, Paul Scholz, recorded a total of 10 new bursts, with his colleagues gathering around the data quite excitedly, with Scholz saying of the experience: “I knew immediately that the discovery would be extremely important in the study of FRBs.”

Gamma ray bursts

An illustration of a gamma ray burst. Image via ESO

Scholz and the team made the discovery using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, the largest radio telescope in the world and, most importantly for astronomy, the team’s findings published in Nature would contradict previous hypothesis that repeating FRBs were impossible due to the cataclysmic nature of their creation.

Next step, get a bigger telescope

However, this does not rule out the possibility that there could be more than one source of FRBs in the universe.

The team’s next objective is to determine where exactly the source of this series of FRBs was, but in order to do that, they’re going to need an even bigger telescope.

“Once we have precisely localised the repeater’s position in the sky, we will be able to compare observations from optical and X-ray telescopes and see if there is a galaxy there,” said Jason Hessels, corresponding author of the paper and member of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON).

“Finding the host galaxy of this source is critical to understanding its properties.”

Arecibo radio telescope image via Prasanth/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic