Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are extremely quick and incredibly powerful radio wave emissions produced by mysterious extragalactic sources. Only two dozen or so of these events have been detected so far but we might have missed many more.
In a new paper, Anastasia Fialkov and Avi Loeb from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics estimate that an FRB might be going off every second. This is reported in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
"If we are right about such a high rate of FRBs happening at any given time, you can imagine the sky is filled with flashes like paparazzi taking photos of a celebrity," Dr Fialkov said in a statement. "Instead of the light we can see with our eyes, these flashes come in radio waves."
The study is based not on the entire small population of FRBs that we have detected so far but on a single one, FRB 121102. This FRB is very special as it is the only one we have observed being repeated. This characteristic allowed astronomers to find out where it’s coming from – a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years away.
It is believed that FRB 121102 is produced by a young neutron star with an extraordinary magnetic field. It is not clear if it is representative of most FRBs in the universe but even if it isn’t, there must still be hundreds or even thousands of similar events in the sky every day. Another idea put forward is that dramatic explosions form the origin of the one-off events, although no visual counterpart has been discovered.
Observing more of these events could help us understand cosmological phenomena we are currently struggling with, provided they have existed since the early universe. One suggestion from the researchers is to use FRBs to peer through the “fog” of the epoch of reionization, when most of the universe’s hydrogen was still blocking the light of the first stars and galaxies.
"FRBs are like incredibly powerful flashlights that we think can penetrate this fog and be seen over vast distances," said Fialkov. "This could allow us to study the 'dawn' of the universe in a new way."
Upcoming observatories, like the Square Kilometer Array, are expected to have enough sensitivity and detection range to sense more than one FRB per minute, so we might soon find out how typical FRB 121102 really is.