Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts Are Starting to Pile Up


The Parkes telescope, in Australia, has observed the majority of FRBs to date. Shaun Amy/NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Since they were first detected in 2007, the phenomena known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs, have puzzled astronomers. They're powerful but extraordinarily brief flashes of radio waves that come from somewhere beyond our humble galaxy. One of these bursts can release more energy in a fraction of a millisecond than our sun can in a day, explains the Washington Post.

FRBs don't happen very often. In fact, scientists have found evidence of just roughly two dozen of them, and nobody knows exactly what is causing them. But in a paper released at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society, researchers revealed that they had traced the only known repeater, FRB 121102, to a star-forming region in a distant dwarf galaxy, where their data suggested that it possibly was being emitted by a neutron star. (You can read more about that in our article Has the 'Twisted Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts Been Solved?)

A neutron star, says NASA, is a collapsed star that stuffs its mass into a space the size of a small city, where it's packed so tightly that a piece the size of a sugar cube would weigh as much as Mount Everest, with an intense magnetic field.

But exactly how or why a neutron star might emit FRBs isn't yet clear, so scientists have considered other possible explanations too, such as supernovas and supermassive black holes. In 2017, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics floated an even more mind-bending possibility — that FRBs could be leaks from planet-sized radio transmitters powering alien interstellar probes in distant galaxies.

On July 25, 2018, scientists using the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, a cutting-edge radio telescope in British Columbia, discovered yet another FRB. They named it FRB 180725A (see how it's named after the date it was discovered?) and noted that it was observed to be transmitting in radio frequencies of 580 megahertz, according to EarthSky.org. That's about 120 MHz lower than any FRB found up to this point, notes a short report posted in The Astronomer's Telegram. And that's interesting because the low frequency could mean that the burst originated from a seriously powerful but undetermined source, says EarthSky. Since FRB 180725A, the Canadians have come across additional bursts at even lower frequencies.

If you're interested in keeping up with these mysterious blips, check out the FRB catalogue of all the known bursts maintained by the FRBCAT team.


More to Explore