Australian researchers have just detected mysterious radio signals from deep space

OzGrav, Swinburne University of Technology.An artist’s impression of fast radio bursts in the sky above CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope at the Murchison radio-astronomy Observatory.
  • Researchers in Western Australia have recorded mysterious “fast radio bursts,” powerful flashes of radio waves from deep space.
  • The discoveries include the closest and brightest bursts detected.
  • The findings on the bursts, whose cause are unknown, are reported in the journal Nature.

Australian researchers have detected the closest and brightest fast radio bursts from deep space ever detected, according to an announcement in the international journal Nature.

The scientists in Western Australia, using the CSIRO radio telescope ASKAP (Australia Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder), recorded nearly double the known number of fast radio bursts, or powerful flashes of radio waves, from across the universe.

Scientists don’t know what causes fast radio bursts but say it must involve energy equivalent to the amount released by the Sun in 80 years.

The bursts travel for billions of years, sometimes passing through clouds of gas.

“We’ve found 20 fast radio bursts in a year, almost doubling the number detected worldwide since they were discovered in 2007,” says lead author Dr Ryan Shannon, from Swinburne University of Technology and the OzGrav ARC Centre of Excellence.

“Using the new technology of the Australia Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), we’ve also proved that fast radio bursts are coming from the other side of the Universe rather than from our own galactic neighbourhood.”

Co-author Dr Jean-Pierre Macquart, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), says timing the arrival of the different wavelengths indicates how much material the burst has travelled through on its journey.

“And because we’ve shown that fast radio bursts come from far away, we can use them to detect all the missing matter located in the space between galaxies—which is a really exciting discovery,” he says.

CSIRO’s Dr Keith Bannister, who engineered the systems which detected the bursts, says the discovery rate is down to two things.

“The telescope has a whopping field of view of 30 square degrees, 100 times larger than the full moon,” he says.

“And, by using the telescope’s dish antennas in a radical way, with each pointing at a different part of the sky, we observed 240 square degrees all at once—about a thousand times the area of the full moon.

“ASKAP is astoundingly good for this work.”

The team’s next challenge is to pinpoint the locations of bursts on the sky.

“We’ll be able to localise the bursts to better than a thousandth of a degree,” says Shannon.

“That’s about the width of a human hair seen ten metres away, and good enough to tie each burst to a particular galaxy.”

ASKAP is located at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia, and is a precursor for the future Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.

The SKA could observe large numbers of fast radio bursts, giving astronomers a way to study the early Universe in detail.

The researchers and their institutions acknowledge the Wajarri Yamaji as the traditional owners of the MRO site.

Alex Cherney/CSIROAntennas of CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder with the Milky Way overhead.

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