Rapid Radio Burst Linked to Galaxy 3.6 Billion Light Years Away

For the first time ever, a fast radio burst's location has been identified, 3.6 billion light years away.
Fabienne Lang

Capturing millisecond-long radio bursts in space is hard enough, let alone pinpointing their origin. Yet, this is precisely what astronomers have done for the first time in history. 


Finding out the sources of space radio bursts has previously been discovered, but locating the exact point of origin had not yet been successfully done. The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder radio telescope in Western Australia achieved just that. 

The single radio burst has been called FRB 180924. FRB stands for Fast Radio Bursts.

Fast Radio Bursts' History

"This is a big breakthrough that the field has been waiting for since astronomers discovered fast radio bursts," said Keith Bannister, lead study author and principal research engineer at CSIRO, Australia's national science agency. 

FRBs were first discovered in 2007, not all that long ago, and ever since, astronomers have been on the lookout for more radio bursts. A grand total of 85 have been discovered since then, some repeating in the same point. 

Rapid Radio Burst Linked to Galaxy 3.6 Billion Light Years Away
CSIRO's Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in Western Australia. Source: Dragonfly Media/ CSIRO

FRBs are fast and hard to track, but Bannister's team found a way of freezing and saving the data, right after telescopes detect the burst. 

How did the team discover the point of origin?

The team created a map from data of collected detections, which ended up pointing out the origin. It is a galaxy 3.6 billion light years away. 

It takes a second to get our heads around that number. 

Bannister quite rightly boasts "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."

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Upon looking at their data, the team found out that the single burst came from a huge galaxy that doesn't create many stars. Repeating bursts, on the other hand, come from a smaller galaxy forming many stars. 

Adam Deller, an author of the study and an associate professor at the Swinburne University of Technology's Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, said "This suggests that fast radio bursts can be produced in a variety of environments, or that seemingly one-off bursts detected so far by ASKAP are generated by a different mechanism to the repeater."

The question that still remains unanswered is: Why do they occur? 

The discovery of the burst's location is a step in the right direction, as it sheds more light on our understanding of them.

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