Astronomers propose a cell phone search for galactic fast radio bursts

February 14, 2017
Artist impression of a Fast Radio Burst (FRB) reaching Earth. The colors represent the burst arriving at different radio wavelengths, with long wavelengths (red) arriving several seconds after short wavelengths (blue). This delay is called dispersion and occurs when radio waves travel through cosmic plasma. Credit: Jingchuan Yu, Beijing Planetarium / NRAO

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are brief spurts of radio emission, lasting just one-thousandth of a second, whose origins are mysterious. Fewer than two dozen have been identified in the past decade using giant radio telescopes such as the 1,000-foot dish in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Of those, only one has been pinpointed to originate from a galaxy about 3 billion light-years away.

The other known FRBs seem to also come from distant galaxies, but there is no obvious reason that, every once in a while, an FRB wouldn't occur in our own Milky Way galaxy too. If it did, astronomers suggest that it would be "loud" enough that a global network of cell phones or small radio receivers could "hear" it.

"The search for nearby offers an opportunity for citizen scientists to help astronomers find and study one of the newest species in the galactic zoo," says theorist Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

Previous FRBs were detected at radio frequencies that match those used by cell phones, Wi-Fi, and similar devices. Consumers could potentially download a free smartphone app that would run in the background, monitoring appropriate frequencies and sending the data to a central processing facility.

"An FRB in the Milky Way, essentially in our own back yard, would wash over the entire planet at once. If thousands of cell phones picked up a radio blip at nearly the same time, that would be a good sign that we've found a real event," explains lead author Dan Maoz of Tel Aviv University.

Finding a Milky Way FRB might require some patience. Based on the few, more distant ones, that have been spotted so far, Maoz and Loeb estimate that a new one might pop off in the Milky Way once every 30 to 1,500 years. However, given that some FRBs are known to burst repeatedly, perhaps for decades or even centuries, there might be one alive in the Milky Way today. If so, success could become a yearly or even weekly event.

A dedicated network of specialized detectors could be even more helpful in the search for a nearby FRB. For as little as $10 each, off-the-shelf devices that plug into the USB port of a laptop or desktop computer can be purchased. If thousands of such detectors were deployed around the world, especially in areas relatively free from Earthly interference, then finding a close FRB might just be a matter of time.

This work has been accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and is available online.

Explore further: Bright radio bursts probe universe's hidden matter

More information: "Searching for Giga-Jansky Fast Radio Bursts from the Milky Way with a Global Array of Low-Cost Radio Receivers," Dan Maoz & Abraham Loeb, 2017, accepted for publication in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society arxiv.org/abs/1701.01475

Related Stories

Bright radio bursts probe universe's hidden matter

November 17, 2016

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 ...

Mysterious cosmic radio bursts found to repeat

March 2, 2016

Astronomers for the first time have detected repeating short bursts of radio waves from an enigmatic source that is likely located well beyond the edge of our Milky Way galaxy. The findings indicate that these "fast radio ...

Fast radio bursts might come from nearby stars

December 12, 2013

First discovered in 2007, "fast radio bursts" continue to defy explanation. These cosmic chirps last for only a thousandth of a second. The characteristics of the radio pulses suggested that they came from galaxies billions ...

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 ...

Recommended for you

Dawn mission extended at Ceres

October 20, 2017

NASA has authorized a second extension of the Dawn mission at Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. During this extension, the spacecraft will descend to lower altitudes than ever before ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RealityCheck
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 03, 2017
Hi bschott. :)

This 'crowdsourcing' technique for getting info re FRBs reminds me of your earlier suggestion of 'crowdsourcing' extant atomic etc clocks and suitable comm systems (held/monitored by the many institutions/military/private organizations) to get info (via 'timing blips' caused by) on passing gravitational waves! Lateral thinking. :)
bschott
not rated yet Mar 07, 2017
Hi bschott. :)

This 'crowdsourcing' technique for getting info re FRBs reminds me of your earlier suggestion of 'crowdsourcing' extant atomic etc clocks and suitable comm systems (held/monitored by the many institutions/military/private organizations) to get info (via 'timing blips' caused by) on passing gravitational waves! Lateral thinking. :)


Timing blips...precisely. It's ridiculous that proponents of relativity, who believe that a gravitational wave is a distortion of "spacetime" cannot fathom why two synchronized timing devices which oscillate at a superfast frequency wouldn't become out of sync when a wave which effects "time" hits one before the other. It seems so simple but it feels like I'm trying to explain a jet engine to my dog.

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.