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Astronomers Catch a Mysterious Burst of Energy in Action

It’s the first time scientists have observed the strange radio pulse as it happened

Scientists used to hypothesize that equipment from Australia's Parkes Observatory, shown here, was responsible for fast radio burst readings. (Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

Back in May of 2014, a Ph.D student at Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology caught a mysterious phenomenon in the act. Emily Petroff was looking for “fast radio bursts,” or FRBs—unexpectedly energetic burst that had completely confused astronomers.

And she found one—a sighting which sheds new light on a phenomenon that has had scientists scratching their head since it was first detected in 2007. Petroff's findings, recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, report the first measures of a fast radio burst as it happened.

News of the Larimer Burst, the first reported FRB, was met with widespread skepticism in the astronomical community. After all, the phenomenon was isolated and just plain weird—an energy surge Duncan Larimer and his team called “a bright millisecond radio burst of extragalactic origin.” Detractors claimed that it wasn’t a phenomenon at all, but rather a product of telescopic interference. But when the phenomenon ended up being picked up by another telescope in 2012, theories began to proliferate. Was the burst evidence of flaring stars, colliding neutron stars…or extraterrestrial life?

Petroff’s real-time observation means more information on FRBs’ origins. As Nadia Drake reports for National Geographic, Petroff used no fewer than 12 telescopes and a program of her own design to catch the radio burst in action, providing real-time information that stands in contrast to weeks-old data used by other researchers. So what did the telescopes reveal about the source of the bursts?

Nothing definitive. “Tasked with peering deep into the cosmos, the group of 12 telescopes quickly returned data suggesting there was no easily identifiable astrophysical source,” reports Drake. “The lack of a discernible afterglow eliminated some of the more mundane possibilities, such as distant supernovas or long gamma-ray bursts.”

Bottom line: Scientists still don’t know what lies behind FRBs, but exotic theories like neutron stars and collapsing black holes are still in the running. At least now we're sure they're real—and that they can be observed as they happen.

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