Extremely short, sharp flash of radio waves from unknown source in the universe, caught as it was happening

Jan 26, 2015

Image credit: Credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions

By Science Daily

A strange phenomenon has been observed by astronomers right as it was happening — a ‘fast radio burst’. The eruption is described as an extremely short, sharp flash of radio waves from an unknown source in the universe. The results have been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Over the past few years, astronomers have observed a new phenomenon, a brief burst of radio waves, lasting only a few milliseconds. It was first seen by chance in 2007, when astronomers went through archival data from the Parkes Radio Telescope in Eastern Australia. Since then we have seen six more such bursts in the Parkes telescope’s data and a seventh burst was found in the data from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. They were almost all discovered long after they had occurred, but then astronomers began to look specifically for them right as they happen.

Radio-, X-ray- and visible light

A team of astronomers in Australia developed a technique to search for these ‘Fast Radio Bursts’, so they could look for the bursts in real time. The technique worked and now a group of astronomers, led by Emily Petroff (Swinburne University of Technology), have succeeded in observing the first ‘live’ burst with the Parkes telescope. The characteristics of the event indicated that the source of the burst was up to 5.5 billion light years from Earth.

Now that they had the burst location and as soon as it was observed, a number of other telescopes around the world were alerted — on both ground and in space, in order to make follow-up observations on other wavelengths.

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5 comments on “Extremely short, sharp flash of radio waves from unknown source in the universe, caught as it was happening

  • I recently attended the 50th anniversary of the Parkes Radio Telescope. As you drive through sheep and wheat farming country with paddocks dotted with huge gum trees, you go over a slight rise and you see this magnificent huge radio telescope dish nestled in the Australian bush. A truly spectacular sight. (For a science nerd) There was an open day and we could tour the whole facility including climbing up into the control tower. Thousands of people came through. The Parkes Radio Telescope is a sentimental favourite with Australians after its role in receiving and transmitting the TV pictures from the Apollo 11 moon landing to the world. This is also where WiFi was invented. I proudly wear my souvenir Parkes Radio Telescope jacket as a travel the world and bore hotel receptions with the the story of the WiFi invention in their lobby. If you come to my place an have a beer, the rubber cooling device, in Australian we call them stubby holders will feature pictures of the telescope.

    As part of the celebrations that night, we attended a performance of Opera at the Dish. They lowered the dish down to ground level behind the symphony orchestra and used it as the stage back drop, illuminated with lights. 3 hours of opera under the stairs. Who needs heaven. If you are touring Australia and you are a science nerd, visit the dish. They have a wonderful museum and interactive display and you can have a coffee and a lamington bun (Australian delicacy) a hundred metres from the dish itself.


    There is an Australian movie called The Dish in which the telescope is the star. It tells the story of the reception and transmission of the signals from Apollo 11, not without problems in a typical Australian humouress way. I commend it to the readers.


    Oh and BTW, nice article on radio bursts… (Will the mods let me keep this in)

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  • My question to this article is, could it be a neutron star from a pulsar? Neutron stars rotate very rapidly and emit beams of electromagnetic radiation as pulsars. They also emit sharp flashes of radio waves when the emission is pointed toward the Earth that last milliseconds to seconds for the individual pulsar. My next question is where in the sky it was located. 5.5billion light years is much too far to be the SN1987A missing neutron star but could this be a massive neutron star from far away? Neutron stars are the most dense and smallest stars (radius as small as 5miles) known in the universe however they can have the mass of 2 or more suns. Any experts able to chime in?


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