Snapshot of cosmic burst of radio waves

January 19, 2015
Schematic illustration of CSIRO's Parkes radio telescope receiving the polarised signal from the new 'fast radio burst'. Credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions

A strange phenomenon has been observed by astronomers right as it was happening - a 'fast radio burst'. The eruption is described as an extremely short, sharp flash of radio waves from an unknown source in the universe. The results have been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Over the past few years, astronomers have observed a new phenomenon, a brief burst of , lasting only a few milliseconds. It was first seen by chance in 2007, when astronomers went through archival data from the Parkes Radio Telescope in Eastern Australia. Since then we have seen six more such bursts in the Parkes telescope's data and a seventh burst was found in the data from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. They were almost all discovered long after they had occurred, but then astronomers began to look specifically for them right as they happen.

Radio-, X-ray- and visible light

A team of astronomers in Australia developed a technique to search for these 'Fast Radio Bursts', so they could look for the bursts in real time. The technique worked and now a group of , led by Emily Petroff (Swinburne University of Technology), have succeeded in observing the first 'live' burst with the Parkes telescope. The characteristics of the event indicated that the source of the burst was up to 5.5 billion years from Earth.

The intensity profile of the fast radio burst, showing how quickly it evolved in time, last only a few milliseconds. Before and after the burst, only noise from the sky was detected. Credit: Malesani/Petroff

Now that they had the burst location and as soon as it was observed, a number of other telescopes around the world were alerted - on both ground and in space, in order to make follow-up observations on other wavelengths.

"Using the Swift space telescope we can observe light in the X-ray region and we saw two X-ray sources at that position," explains Daniele Malesani, astrophysicist at the Dark Cosmology Centre, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen.

Then the two X-ray sources were observed using the Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma. "We observed in and we could see that there were two quasars, that is to say, active black holes. They had nothing to do with the radio wave bursts, but just happen to be located in the same direction," explains astrophysicist Giorgos Leloudas, Dark Cosmology Centre, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen and Weizmann Institute, Israel.

Further investigation

So now what? Even though they captured the radio wave burst while it was happening and could immediately make follow-up observations at other wavelengths ranging from infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light and X-ray waves, they found nothing. But did they discover anything?

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An illustration of CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope receiving the polarized signal from the new ‘fast radio burst.’ Credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions

"We found out what it wasn't. The burst could have hurled out as much energy in a few milliseconds as the Sun does in an entire day. But the fact that we did not see light in other wavelengths eliminates a number of astronomical phenomena that are associated with violent events such as gamma-ray bursts from exploding stars and supernovae, which were otherwise candidates for the burst," explains Daniele Malesani.

But the burst left another clue. The Parkes detection system captured the polarisation of the light. Polarisation is the direction in which electromagnetic waves oscillate and they can be linearly or circularly polarised. The signal from the radio wave burst was more than 20 percent circularly polarised and it suggests that there is a magnetic field in the vicinity.

"The theories are now that the radio wave burst might be linked to a very compact type of object - such as neutron stars or black holes and the bursts could be connected to collisions or 'star quakes'. Now we know more about what we should be looking for," says Daniele Malesani.

Explore further: Are gamma ray bursts dangerous?

More information: "A real-time fast radio burst: Polarization detection and multi-wavelength follow-up," E. Petroff et al. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, mnras.oxfordjournals.org/lookup/doi/10.1093/mnras/stu2419 . Preprint: arxiv.org/abs/1412.0342

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15 comments

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kow
4.3 / 5 (9) Jan 19, 2015
Alien calibration signal obviously :)
bluehigh
1 / 5 (8) Jan 19, 2015
5.5 billion light years. A burst of a few milli seconds. We just happen to be in the right place, at the right time with appropriate technology to detect the signal. Lol, that's silly. Must be an unbelievably huge and fast event with a probability of detection near zero.

Occam's razor. It's simply not that far away.

peter_bilski
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 19, 2015
That short event inspired me to idea of creating following device. Suppose that we detected super interesting even , so all is gone and we are unable to direct more powerful telescopes to same location, Too late. But we could create system consisting of our telescope and big mirror in the space or on the Moon. Our powerful telescope is not setup directly toward even but mirror. Then after spotting interesting event we should have additional few minutes before time riches our mirror and come back to our powerful telescope. Just enough time to reconfigure our telescope towards interesting event. Sort time machine that allow us to observe events with delay againg.
adimchio
not rated yet Jan 19, 2015
How wide is the observed universe?
alfie_null
5 / 5 (9) Jan 19, 2015
Occam's razor. It's simply not that far away.

Doesn't work as an argument. What you need to do is argue against the methods they employed to determine that distance. Explain why you don't believe they are valid.
Doug_Huffman
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2015
How wide is the observed universe?

4π sr or Four Pi Steradians, like all spheres.
Uncle Ira
3.5 / 5 (6) Jan 19, 2015
5.5 billion light years. A burst of a few milli seconds. We just happen to be in the right place, at the right time with appropriate technology to detect the signal. Lol, that's silly. Must be an unbelievably huge and fast event with a probability of detection near zero.

Occam's razor. It's simply not that far away.


Skippy why is that so hard to believe, eh? They got more and more of those telescopes pointing every which way and looking all night and all the day on the dark side of the world and a lot of stuff up on the satellites too. Seems like a simple thing to me, you look long enough and in enough places you are going to find something rarer and not usual sooner than later.

But maybe I'm not thinking that out right, but that's how things in my life works. Not telescope looking, I do not do that, just normal things as I go about my days I mean.
bluehigh
1 / 5 (7) Jan 19, 2015
Doesn't work as an argument. What you need to do is argue against the methods they employed to determine that distance. Explain why you don't believe they are valid.


> I do not argue against the methods. I just doubt the results. So I suggest that there is some other factor that leads to incorrect conclusions. Best I can believe is that some effect allows us to perceive distant stellar objects as being farther away than in fact.

> Our local star when view from say Pluto ( less than one light day away ) is barely brighter than most other stars. Sure, it can cast shadows on a clear Pluto night. Only just. However, we are observing stellar objects, stars in particular that we are told millions of light years distant. Simple math can easily show that these objects intensity would be so diminished that we could not observe them.

> Sol exhibits a field that warps our observation of stellar objects, much like the effect of a concave lens. The stars are not so far away.
bluehigh
1 / 5 (5) Jan 19, 2015
If some want to get all twisted and defensive then that's fine. When I figure out a test then you can be sure I'll shout about it. In the meanwhile it's a hypothesis. Or don't we do those in science any more!
nkalanaga
5 / 5 (7) Jan 19, 2015
Bluehigh: Or they're very common, but very tight beams, so we only intercept a tiny fraction of them. Since we don't monitor the entire sky constantly, we'd then miss most of those that DO reach Earth, leading to the appearance of rarity. The first one we could study just happens to be that far away.
LagomorphZero
5 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2015
with two pulsars in the region, I have to wonder if it could have been a superposition of beams from both pulsars, though it seems like the polarization would be destroyed in a superposition.
nkalanaga
5 / 5 (2) Jan 20, 2015
A good, and testable, theory, but you'd think that, if that was the case, they'd be picking up the individual beams before and after, showing pulses about half the intensity, instead of only background noise.

Also, they would have had to be perfectly timed, or the pulse would be "stepped", as one beam started, then the other combined with it, the first ended leaving the second, then the second ended. Not impossible, but it would have been extremely unlikely that they were so neatly overlapped.
EnsignFlandry
5 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2015

"adimchio how wide is the observed universe?"

About 46 billion light years in radius, give or take a mile.

zangetsu
not rated yet Jan 21, 2015
this article made me wonder what kind of music aliens outside of our solar system would listen to.
Whydening Gyre
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 21, 2015
this article made me wonder what kind of music aliens outside of our solar system would listen to.

Led Zep...

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