Solution to mysterious radiowave blast: Source may be starquake

Dec 3, 2015

American telescope detects clue to source of fast radio bursts.

For the past eight years, astronomers have been mystified by sudden, very short blasts of radio waves that defy explanation.

Now the most detailed study so far1 has furnished a clue to the origin of at least one of these strange pulses, or ‘fast radio bursts’ (FRBs). It came from a dense, magnetized region of space, and was probably emitted by a young neutron star (a compact core left in the aftermath of a supernova), says study author Kiyoshi Masui at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

When the bursts, which last just a few thousandths of a second, were first discovered2 in 2007 using the Parkes Observatory radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, sceptics put them down to an instrument fault or interference. (Strange signals sometimes have a mundane explanation; a separate class of radio signals, known as perytons, turned out to have been caused by opening the door of a nearby microwave oven.)

But in the past three years, 15 more FRBs have been discovered, including by a second observatory, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, leading astronomers to believe that the signals have a cosmic origin.

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