Pinpointing Cosmic Sources

Since the first fast radio burst was discovered in 2007, the phenomenon has been a particular point of interest for scientists, astronomy enthusiasts, and even those looking for signs of extraterrestrial life. The discovery took six years to be deciphered from data collected in 2001, which is a clue into just how puzzling these bursts are.

A fast radio burst is a bright flash of radio light energy that only lasts for mere milliseconds. The bursts are among the most luminous phenomena we've ever detected in the Milky Way galaxy. They contain as much energy as the sun produces in an entire day.

Scientists are not sure where these bursts are coming from. Even more, until this latest development, we could not even be sure that they were originating from space. Scientists have suggested that the bursts originate during the formation of a black hole when two neutron stars collide. Others worried that the bursts could be the result of interference here on Earth.

Scientists from Harvard have even recently suggested that fast radio bursts could be evidence of alien life. Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for astrophysics thinks that "An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking."

This brings us to the work of Manisha Caleb, a PhD candidate at Australian National University. She has been working on a way to parse through all of the data and attempt to gather information on where the fast radio bursts come from. Figuring out the location of their origin could help to nail down how they come into existence.

Image Credit: CSIRO/Harvard/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

Answers from a Supercomputer

Caleb worked specifically on developing software that can effectively search through the 1,000 TB of data that is produced by the Molongolo telescope. This telescope is the perfect tool for studying fast radio bursts as its collecting area is immense at 18,000 square meters (nearly 21,528 square yards). The telescope was recently upgraded specifically for the detection of fast radio bursts as well as to research pulsars.

Researchers have realized that this telescope could at least place a minimum distance on detected bursts given its unique architecture. And, since the telescope is incapable of detecting signals from here on Earth, Molongolo detecting any fast radio bursts prove that they are cosmic in origin and cannot be attributed to any terrestrial interference.

While the data has only so far confirmed a single link of a previously discovered burst to a small dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years from Earth, we at least now know they are indeed cosmic in nature. “Figuring out where the bursts come from is the key to understanding what makes them. Only one burst has been linked to a specific galaxy,” say Caleb. “We expect Molonglo will do this for many more bursts.”

The telescope will continue to be upgraded to better assist in discovering the origins of these mysterious signals. It may not lead to our first alien contact, but it definitely will give us a better understanding of the mechanics of our universe.

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