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Astronomers Detect the Fastest Burst of Radio Waves From Space Yet

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We like to think we know a lot about space. We can identify the chemical composition of an exoplanet’s atmosphere from light-years away, simulate conditions on an alien planet, and we almost figured out time travel using black holes. All of that only scratches the surface, though-we still don’t know what dark matter is, if there’s alien life out there, or even what’s causing these incredibly powerful, extremely short bursts of radio waves that we’ve been detecting for years. The latter is especially intriguing though-especially considering astronomers have just discovered the brightest radio burst yet.

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) were only discovered in 2007, and though we’ve detected over 30 of them, no one knows for sure where they come from or why they’re so powerful. Neutron stars, pulsars, and black holes have all been put forward as candidates, but all we know is that the source packs an incredible amount of power.

“While astronomers don’t know all that much about FRBs-only tens of bursts have ever been detected-we can infer some intriguing details about them,” said Danny Price, who works for the Breakthrough Listen Project.

“Firstly, they exhibit a tell-tale sweep in frequency that suggests they are incredibly far away: billions of light years. FRBs travel billions of years to get to us, and only last a few milliseconds, suggesting the emission mechanism is short-lived. For us to detect them clearly after such a long journey, they have also to be insanely bright.”

On March 9, the brightest FRB detected so far was picked up by CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope, located in Australia. Dubbed FRB 180309, it had a signal-to-noise ratio of 411, making it the brightest one we’ve seen “by far.”

But it wouldn’t be a mystery if there wasn’t a catch.

FRBs, despite being absurdly bright and powerful, don’t seem to appear in patterns. They come from many different parts of the sky, but it seems that only two have ever come from the same source: FRB 121102, which may have come from a neutron star.

The others appear almost randomly, making studying them difficult. On top of that, only 33 have ever been observed.

Could this be a case of interstellar language getting lost in translation? Until more data is collected, it looks like FRBs will remain a mystery.

Chris Mahon
Outer Places


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DID YOU KNOW…

Earth is the only planet that is not named after a god.
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