World’s Largest Single Radio Dish Telescope Just Picked up a Mysterious Space Signal

Considered the world’s most sensitive listening device, the telescope has captured a fast radio burst.
Loukia Papadopoulos

The world’s largest single radio dish telescope, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) in China, is now fully operational and has picked up a mysterious space signal known as a fast radio burst.

Fast radio bursts are "bright, unresolved, broadband, millisecond flashes" found in parts of the sky outside the Milky Way, according to the journal Nature.


Pulses of energy

Fast radio bursts are brief but powerful pulses of energy. First spotted in 2007, we are now finding more of them all the time. Unfortunately, we still don't know what these signals are or how they come to be.

The latest detection by FAST is officially named FRB 121102, and it was first spotted in 2012 at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. 

FAST has double the collecting power of the Arecibo which could explain why it captured FRB 121102 so quickly. It is estimated that the signal has traveled approximately 3 billion light-years across the Universe to reach us.

More than 100 bursts were detected from FRB121102 — the highest number of bursts ever detected so far. They were recorded from late August to the beginning of September. It seems FRB121102 is a particularly persistent fast radio burst.

FAST is especially adept at capturing radio signals due to a highly sensitive fast radio burst backend on a 19-beam receiver. It is made up of 4,450 individual panels and is a fixed 500-meter dish.

The world’s most sensitive listening device

It is both the world’s most sensitive listening device and the world’s largest filled-aperture radio-telescope. As such, it is ideal for keeping an eye on FRB 121102.

The more we observe fast radio bursts, the better our chances of being able to figure out precisely what they are. Researchers are getting closer to pinpointing where these bursts of electromagnetic radiation emerge from. And this new data will help them.

"I just think it is so amazing that nature produces something like that," physicist Ziggy Pleunis of McGill University told ScienceAlert.  "Also, I think that there is some very important information in that structure that we just have to figure out how to encode and it has been a lot of fun to try to figure out what exactly that is."

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