Bright radio bursts probe universe's hidden matter

November 17, 2016 by Lori Dajose
The intensity of FRB 150807 at different radio frequencies or colors -- red corresponds to lower frequencies and blue to higher frequencies. The x-axis is time. The fine structure in the burst is the scintillation or twinkling--the rays interfere constructively and destructively differently at different frequencies. This pattern provides insights into the turbulence in plasma towards the burst. Credit: V. Ravi/Caltech

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are mysterious flashes of radio waves originating outside our Milky Way galaxy. A team of scientists, jointly led by Caltech postdoctoral scholar Vikram Ravi and Curtin University research fellow Ryan Shannon, has now observed the most luminous FRB to date, called FRB 150807.

Though astronomers still do not know what kinds of events or objects produce FRBs, the discovery is a stepping stone for astronomers to understand the diffuse, faint web of material that exists between galaxies, called the cosmic web. The findings are described in a paper appearing in Science on November 17.

"Because FRBs like the one we discovered occur billions of light-years away, they help us study the universe between us and them," says Ravi, who is the R A and G B Millikan Postdoctoral Scholar in Astronomy. "Nearly half of all visible matter is thought to be thinly spread throughout intergalactic space. Although this matter is not normally visible to telescopes, it can be studied using FRBs."

When FRBs travel through space, they pass through intergalactic material and are distorted, similar to the apparent twinkling of a star because its light is distorted by Earth's atmosphere. By observing these bursts, astronomers can learn details about the regions of the universe through which the bursts traveled on their way to Earth.

FRB 150807 appears to only be weakly distorted by material within its host galaxy, which shows that the intergalactic medium in this direction is no more turbulent than theorists originally predicted. This is the first direct insight into turbulence in intergalactic medium.

The researchers observed FRB 150807 while monitoring a nearby pulsar—a rotating neutron star that emits a beam of radio waves and other electromagnetic radiation—in our galaxy using the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. "Thanks to a real-time detection system developed by the Swinburne University of Technology, we found that although the FRB is a million times further away than the pulsar, the magnetic fields in their directions appear identical," says Ryan Shannon, research fellow at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Astronomy and Space Science and at Curtin University in Australia, and colead author of the study. This refutes some claims that FRBs are produced in dense environments with strong magnetic fields. The result provides a measure of the magnetism in the space between galaxies, an essential step in determining how cosmic magnetic fields are produced.

Only 18 FRBs have been detected to date. Mysteriously, most give off only a single burst and do not flash repeatedly. Additionally, most FRBs have been detected with telescopes that observe large swaths of the sky but with poor resolution, making it difficult to pinpoint the exact location of a given burst. The unprecedented brightness of FRB 150807 allowed Ravi and his team to localize it much more accurately, making it the best-localized FRB to date.

The yellow circle shows the typical location of an FRB. There are thousands of stars and galaxies in this direction. Because the burst was very bright we were able to locate it to a small region near the edge of that circle, shown as the pink banana-shaped region in the inset.In this region there are only 6 detected galaxies. The position of the most likely host galaxy, VHS7, is highlighted on the plot. Credit: Credit: Dr. Vikram Ravi/Caltech and Dr. Ryan Shannon/ICRAR-Curtin/CSIRO

In February 2017, pinpointing the locations of FRBs will become much easier for astronomers with the commissioning of the Deep Synoptic Array prototype, an array of 10 radio dishes at Caltech's Owens Valley Radio Observatory in California.

"We estimate that there are between 2,000 and 10,000 FRBs occurring in the sky every day," Ravi says. "One in 10 of these are as bright as FRB 150807, and the Deep Synoptic Array prototype will be able to pinpoint their locations to individual galaxies. Measuring the distances to these galaxies enables us to use FRBs to weigh the tenuous intergalactic material."

Ravi is the project scientist for the Deep Synoptic Array prototype, which is being constructed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Caltech and funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration through the JPL President's and Director's Fund Program.

The paper is titled "The magnetic field and turbulence of the cosmic web measured using a brilliant fast radio burst."

Explore further: Cosmic whistle packs a surprisingly energetic punch

More information: "The magnetic field and turbulence of the cosmic web measured using a brilliant fast radio burst," Science, science.sciencemag.org/lookup/ … 1126/science.aaf6807

Related Stories

Cosmic whistle packs a surprisingly energetic punch

November 11, 2016

Penn State University astronomers have discovered that the mysterious "cosmic whistles" known as fast radio bursts can pack a serious punch, in some cases releasing a billion times more energy in gamma-rays than they do in ...

Detected radio bursts evidence of 'exotic phenomena'

September 27, 2013

The detection of four short bursts of radio waves, possibly arising from explosions billions of light years away, could be powerful tools to study our Universe, according to research published in Science.

Recommended for you

Bright areas on Ceres suggest geologic activity

December 13, 2017

If you could fly aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft, the surface of dwarf planet Ceres would generally look quite dark, but with notable exceptions. These exceptions are the hundreds of bright areas that stand out in images Dawn ...

Major space mystery solved using data from student satellite

December 13, 2017

A 60-year-old mystery regarding the source of some energetic and potentially damaging particles in Earth's radiation belts is now solved using data from a shoebox-sized satellite built and operated by University of Colorado ...

Spanning disciplines in the search for life beyond Earth

December 13, 2017

The search for life beyond Earth is riding a surge of creativity and innovation. Following a gold rush of exoplanet discovery over the past two decades, it is time to tackle the next step: determining which of the known exoplanets ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

cantdrive85
1 / 5 (2) Nov 19, 2016
It's truly sad that we rely on those who are completely ignorant of plasma processes to decipher these plasma phenomena.
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Nov 19, 2016
@cantreadTROLL
It's truly sad that we rely on those who are completely ignorant of plasma processes to decipher these plasma phenomena
this is called a *false claim*
a "Statement about the real world refuted by the evidence"
http://www.auburn...ion.html

AKA - a lie
the only reason you would keep repeating a lie that can't be proven by evidence is to attempt to lend credibility to your argument through repetition
This is the tactic of the cult and of religion, not science

who are you trying to convince?
you?

surely you know that to convince others you would need to actually post evidence

to date, you've never been able to prove that in any thread, anywhere, with any evidence

none

learn about reality before commenting: https://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm

Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Nov 19, 2016
@euTROLL cont'd

feel free to expose any mistakes in the math or physics by posting it here directly from the study: http://science.sc...807.full

then we can check your work and see if you know more about plasma physics than the scientists who study it day in and day out...

feel free to add physics and experimental evidence that refutes the study information as well... maybe you can get published in a reputable journal instead of commenting on a pop-sci news aggregate

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.