Finally, mysterious Fast Radio Burst pinpointed to its source galaxy. An object on the edge of a distant galaxy spurred an intensely bright, vanishingly brief burst of radio energy shooting across the universe three and a half billion years ago.
That pulse of energy — known to its followers in the astronomy community as a fast radio burst (FRB) — passed through its multi-billion-year trip through a sea of gas, dust, and empty space, slowly stretching and altering color as it went.
Then that burst zapped past a unique telescope in Earth’s Australian outback for less than a millisecond in 2018, offering researchers a rare chance to shake hands with one of the universe’s most mysterious forms of energy.
It is the first time astronomers have successfully tracked a one-off FRB back in time and space to its source. Understanding where FRBs come from allows researchers to test the vast amounts of matter between their host galaxies and Earth. Perhaps even to find undiscovered pockets of protons and neutrons that are believed to lie between galaxies.
“These bursts are altered by the matter they encounter in space,” said Jean-Pierre Macquart, co-author of the study, a researcher at the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR). “We can now pinpoint where they originate, we can use them to evaluate the quantity of matter in intergalactic space.”
Astronomers have observed about 85 FRBs since the phenomenon was discovered in 2007 and identified the origins of just one other — a repeating flash that pulsed nine times in 2016 from a tiny, star-forming galaxy over about six months.
It has been extremely difficult to identify the source of a one-off FRB, which can last for a fraction of a millisecond, so far.
The researchers used an array of 36 satellites called the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope to detect the lone FRB in their new study. When an FRB crosses the array, each satellite receives a fraction of a millisecond apart from the burst signal.
Using these subtle time differences, the researchers were able to determine the direction from which the burst came and how far it traveled.
The observations of ASKAP pointed to a galaxy about 3.6 billion light-years away from Earth. Scientists zoomed in on this Milkyway size galaxy with some assistance from several other big telescopes around the world to discover that it was comparatively old and not forming many new stars.
According to Adam Deller, an astrophysicist at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia and co-author of the new study, the properties of this remote galaxy stand in sharp contrast to the galaxy that created a repeated fast-radio burst detected in 2016.
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“We located the burst and its host galaxy looks nothing like the ‘repeater’ and its host,” said Deller in the statement. “It comes from a massive galaxy forming relatively few stars, suggesting that FRBs can occur in a variety of environments.”
While a neutron star or supernova explosion (common star formation engines in active galaxies) probably produced the repeating FRBs detected a few years ago, this individual burst could have been completely triggered by something else, the researchers wrote.
Exactly what else? No one knows yet. But radioactive belches from supermassive black holes or alien spacecraft engines have not been ruled out.
Researchers will only be able to unravel this cosmic mystery by identifying more FRBs. Fortunately, the authors of the new study wrote that finding the next should be a little easier now, that they have got one under their belt.
The research was published in the journal Science.