Astronomers Find Powerful ‘Fast Radio Burst’ That Traveled for Eight Billion Years

The strong blast of radio waves is the oldest known, and it could tell scientists more about the mysterious matter that lies between galaxies

Four large telescopes below an evening sky
The four telescopes of the Very Large Telescope in Chile. Researchers used them to search for the source of the fast radio burst. Sven Creutzmann / Getty Images

Astronomers have detected an extremely brief flash of radio waves called a fast radio burst (FRB) that originated in deep space eight billion years ago.

This pulse of energy, which was more than three times stronger than what scientists thought was possible, is also the oldest FRB ever observed, researchers reported in October in the journal Science.

“We didn’t know whether fast radio bursts even existed that far back in time,” Stuart Ryder, co-lead author of the study and an astronomer at Macquarie University in Australia, tells Nature News’ Gemma Conroy.

FRBs last only for milliseconds. But despite its brief duration, the newly detected FRB contained as much energy as the sun emits in 30 years, per Reuters Will Dunham. These powerful, short-lived events could provide insight into how much matter lies between galaxies, according to a statement from Macquarie University.

“It’s very exciting, definitely one of the great applications of fast radio bursts,” Ziggy Pleunis, an astronomer at the University of Toronto who did not contribute to the findings, says to Popular Science’s Rahul Rao. “Fast radio bursts currently are really the only thing that we know that interacts with the intergalactic medium in a meaningful enough way that we can measure properties.”

Since the first FRB was detected in 2007, astronomers have spotted around 800 more, data scientist Kshitij Aggarwal wrote in the Conversation last year. But researchers still aren’t sure about what causes these phenomena.

Ryan Shannon, a co-author of the study and an astronomer at Swinburne University in Australia, tells Reuters that the most likely source is a type of neutron star with a powerful magnetic field called a magnetar. Neutron stars are the ultra-dense remains of supermassive stars that have exploded.

“[Magnetars] are some of the most extreme objects in the universe, which you would need to produce such extreme bursts,” Shannon tells Reuters.

For the new detection, the researchers turned to the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), a radio telescope made up of three dozen dishes on Wajarri Yamaji Country in Western Australia. ASKAP determined where the burst had come from, then the team used the Very Large Telescope in Chile to pinpoint the source galaxy.

“The further you go out in the universe, of course, the fainter the galaxies are, because they’re farther away. It’s quite difficult to identify the host galaxy, and that’s what they’ve done,” Sarah Burke-Spolaor, an astronomer at West Virginia University who was not involved in the study, tells Popular Science.

That galaxy, though fuzzy in their images, appeared to have two or three bright blobs within it, suggesting the FRB originated when a group of galaxies collided in the early universe. The eight-billion-year-old burst is more than half the universe’s age, which is about 13.7 billion years.

The researchers hope to use FRBs to find out how much of the hot and diffuse gas called plasma lies between galaxies. These intergalactic particles cause FRBs to disperse as they pass through, which astronomers can measure. This can enable scientists to calculate how much plasma lies between Earth and the site where the FRB began.

“As the sample of these distant bursts grows, they will tell us a lot about how the universe evolved,” Kiyoshi Masui, an astrophysicist at MIT who did not contribute to the findings, tells Nature News.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.