Australian-led team locates fast radio burst

By on 3 July, 2019

CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope, at CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia. Image supplied and © CSIRO, Dragonfly Media.

An Australian-led team of international researchers has precisely identified the origin of a one-off burst of cosmic radio waves for the first time. 

The discovery was made at the new Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), a CSIRO facility in Western Australia, which identified the source of the energy burst FRB 180924 as a galaxy around four billion light years away.

Fast radio bursts are usually less than a millisecond in duration, making it exceedingly difficult to pinpoint their location. The team was able to locate this burst’s origin with a new technique which ‘froze’ and store the data captured by ASKAP less than a second after being detected by the facility.

The team’s results were published online in the journal Science. Lead author of the paper Dr. Keith Bannister said that they were able to pinpoint the location of the signal’s origin with extremely high accuracy.

“If we were to stand on the Moon and look down at the Earth with this precision, we would be able to tell not only which city the burst came from, but which postcode – and even which city block,” he said.

“This is the big breakthrough that the field has been waiting for since astronomers discovered fast radio bursts in 2007.”

The localisation of the burst was achieved under a project using ASKAP called CRAFT (Commensal Real-time ASKAP Fast Transients), jointly led by Dr. Bannister, Dr. Macquart and Dr. Ryan Shannon of Swinburne University of Technology.

The signal’s home galaxy was imaged with the European Southern Observatory’s 8-metre Very Large Telescope in Chile, then measured its distance with the 10-metre Keck telescope in Hawai’i and the 8-metre Gemini South telescope in Chile.

Dr. Adam Deller of Swinburne University of Technology said that the characteristics of this signal’s home galaxy were very different from that of the only previously localised signal and its host galaxy.

That signal was known as a ‘repeater’, meaning it recurs in the same location, whereas the recent discovery was a one-off burst. The localised ‘repeater’ came from a small galaxy that forms many stars.

“The burst we localised and its host galaxy look nothing like the ‘repeater’ and its host,” Dr. Deller said.

“It comes from a massive galaxy that is forming relatively few stars. This suggests that fast radio bursts can be produced in a variety of environments, or that the seemingly one-off bursts detected so far by ASKAP are generated by a different mechanism to the repeater.”

The discovery also has implications for astronomers’ ability to discover new matter in intergalactic space, providing crucial data to assist its measurement.

The Milky Way galaxy stretches above the core group of CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope. ©CSIRO, Alex Cherney

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