With only 18 fast radio bursts (FRBs) ever detected, these signals are a wealth of information about the fabric of the universe and the latest one detected is the most luminous ever.
Researchers at ICRAR-Curtin University, California Institute of Technology and CSIRO detected a brilliant burst of radio signal said to have travelled at least a billion light-years through Space before reaching Australia’s Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales. The team was actually observing a pulsar in our galaxy when they spotted the FRB. The flash was captured by Curtin University’s Dr. Ryan Shannon and California Institute of Technology’s Dr. Vikram Ravi.
Researchers say that all FRBs contain crucial information but this FRB, the 18th detected so far, was unique in the amount of information it contained about the cosmic web — the swirling gases and magnetic fields between galaxies.
Researchers say that this particular FRB is unique because its travel path can be reconstructed to a precise line of sight and back to an area of space about a billion light-years away that contains only a small number of possible home galaxies.
Dr. Shannon explained that the vast spaces between objects in the universe contain nearly invisible gas and a plasma of ionised particles that used to be almost impossible to map, until this pulse was detected.
“This FRB, like others detected, is thought to originate from outside of Earth’s own Milky Way galaxy, which means their signal has travelled over many hundreds of millions of light-years, through a medium that — while invisible to our eyes — can be turbulent and affected by magnetic fields,” Dr. Shannon said.
This particular flash reached CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope mid-last year and was subsequently analysed by a mostly Australian team.
FRBs remain one of the most mysterious processes in the universe and likely one of the most energetic ones. To catch more FRBs, astronomers use new technology, such as Parkes’ multibeam receiver, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in Western Australia, and the upgraded Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope near Canberra.
This particular FRB was found and analysed by a system developed by the supercomputing group led by Professor Matthew Bailes at Swinburne University of Technology.
Professor Bailes, who was a co-author on the Science paper, also heads The Dynamic Universe research theme in the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO), which has seven Australian nodes including ICRAR-Curtin University.
“Ultimately, FRBs that can be traced to their cosmic host galaxies offer a unique way to probe intergalactic space that allow us to count the bulk of the electrons that inhabit our universe,” Professor Bailes said.
“To decode and further understand the information contained in this FRB is an exceptional opportunity to explore the physical forces and the extreme environment out in Space.”
A paper describing the FRB and the team’s findings was published today in the journal Science.