Fast Radio Bursts: Astronomers Solve A Decades-Long Space Mystery

Fast radio bursts” have been a source of mystery and debate for decades. Astronomers have argued, theorized, and scratched their heads at the strange signals. Many have predictably thrown around the word “aliens” on more than one occasion. It was even thought that Fast radio bursts originated from microwave ovens at research centers, according to National Geographic. But they’ve finally been captured, and we now know the location of one burst in a far off galaxy.

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are a series of pulses that happen rapidly and at seemingly random points in time and space. Seventeen of them have been detected so far. And those are only the ones that we are aware of. Scientists believe that there could be thousands of them passing us by everyday, occasionally baffling us. Theories include collapsing neutron stars, pulsars, and black holes, according to Gizmodo.

Nature is now reporting that the pulsar theory is out.

Normally, when a fast radio burst is detected, astronomers don’t find out until they go back through their observation records. But researchers at the Parkes radio telescope in Australia caught the anomaly just seconds after it passed and were able to zero in on the area of space it came from. FRB 150418, as it was called, released two days worth of our sun’s energy in a fraction of a second.

The fast radio burst was determined to have originated in an elliptical galaxy 6 million light years away. Optical analysis of the host galaxy allowed scientists to narrow down candidates of the origins of the burst by examining light waves.

Pulsars are immediately ruled out of the equation, due to the age of galaxy. A pulsar is very young feature in the universe and this region of space is simply too mature to host that type event.

“Such a low star-formation rate implies, in the simplest interpretation, that FRB models directly related to recent star formation such as magnetar flares or blitzars are disfavoured. This problem might be avoided if either some residual star formation occurred in an otherwise ‘dead’ galaxy, or if the FRB originated in one of the many satellite galaxies that are expected to surround an elliptical galaxy at this redshift, but that cannot be resolved in our observations.”

More than likely, the event was caused by two large bodies colliding. The likely event that would not only generate some very loud noises and at a high rate (hence, fast radio bursts) would be two neutron stars colliding. This would also produce a lot residual light, allowing scientists to follow a sort of trail across the sky.

“The next big thing for FRB hunters, and gravitational wave hunters, is to find something emitting in both domains… With multi-messenger work like that we can do amazing physics,” said lead study author Evan Keane, via Gizmodo.

Keane is referring to the game-changing technology that led to the discovery of gravitational waves, and consequentially, proved Einstein’s theory of relativity a century after its development. The observation of gravitational waves has indeed been called the discovery of the century.

Taking us back to the subject of fast radio bursts: an event capable of producing an FRB and the residual light leading to the original location, is the same kind of event likely capable of emitting massive amounts of gravity. Not only have we come a step closer to identifying what causes a fast radio burst to travel millions of light years, but we also now have the technology and the understanding to observe the events that cause fast radio bursts on multiple levels.

Maybe next time it’ll be aliens.

[Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]