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Tracing a Fast Radio Burst

A view from CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder radio telescope antenna 29. Photo: CSIRO/Alex Cherney

For the first time, scientists have traced the origin of a non-repeating Fast Radio Burst (FRB).

Why it matters: The origin of FRBs — extreme and mysterious pulses of radio waves from outside our galaxy — has been a long-standing mystery in astrophysics that the new study in the journal Science moves the field closer to solving.

  • “[An FRB] lasts about a millisecond, so you click your fingers, and you miss it,” lead author Keith Bannister of CSIRO told Axios.

What they found: A powerful radio telescope allowed the astronomers to trace an FRB detected in 2018 to a particular part of its host galaxy more than 4 billion light-years away from our own.

Context: Scientists have plenty of ideas about what might be causing these FRBs, but none of the explanations are perfect.

  • “There are tens of models out there in the literature with the burst sources ranging from really massive black holes at the centers of galaxies to highly magnetized neutron stars,” McGill University’s Pragya Chawla told Axios.

But, but, but: FRBs can be either a single radio wave pulse or repeating bursts. Scientists traced the origin of a repeating FRB in 2017, but that galaxy looks very different from the galaxy that hosted this transient FRB.

  • The repeating FRB came from a much less massive galaxy that was bursting with star formation, unlike the single FRB detailed in the new study.
  • “The study hints at repeating and non-repeating FRBs having different origins or that FRBs could be found in widely varying local environments and galaxies,” Chawla, who wasn’t affiliated with the new research, said. “Too early to say which one of those is true, but I definitely found myself thinking hard about both those possibilities.”