Mysterious Deep-Space Flashes: 20 More ‘Fast Radio Bursts’ Found


A new observatory is making history in the Australian desert In a little more than a year, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) has detected a tremendous 20 of the mysterious signals known as fast radio bursts. Australian researchers using a CSIRO radio telescope in Western Australia have nearly doubled the known number of ‘fast radio bursts’ -powerful flashes of radio waves from deep space.

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are one of space’s most intriguing mysteries. They are extremely powerful, generating as much energy as hundreds of millions of Suns. But they are also extremely short, lasting just milliseconds; and most of them only occur once, without warning. This means they can’t be predicted, so it’s not like astronomers are able to plan observations.

Unless a radio telescope – which has a relatively narrow field-of-view – is looking at exactly the right section of the sky when one of these bursts fires, that burst is going to be missed. No wonder that prior to this latest data from ASKAP, we only had recorded 34 FRB sources. The telescope array is the technology pathfinder project for the upcoming Square Kilometre Array, and it only commenced science observations in January 2017.

The new study is led by Ryan Shannon, of the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. Since the beginning of 2017, he and his team have been searching the skies for FRBs using the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), a network of 36 radio dishes in Western Australia. The systematic hunt has already turned up 20 FRBs. The research findings were published in the journal Nature.

The team’s analyses show “that fast radio bursts are coming from the other side of the universe rather than from our own galactic neighborhood. The researchers did turn up the nearest known FRB to Earth, an event known as FRB 171020, which originated about 425 million light-years away from our planet. That’s about twice as close as the previous record holder.

In the future, Shannon and his colleagues aim to nail down the location of the FRBs further. They should be able to tie each burst to its home galaxy, the researchers said. As its name indicates, ASKAP is a pathfinder for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a huge network of radio dishes across Australia and South Africa that’s scheduled to start taking shape over the next few years.