Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are some of the most energetic events in the universe and we know very little about their origin. So far we have only have detected about two dozen FRBs but this might soon change thanks to the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP).
The facility had only been looking for FRBs for four days when the first detection happened, delighting astronomers. ASKAP was only using eight out of its 36 dishes and with this capability, it will easily take the lead on the hunt for FRBs. The discovery is reported in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
“We can expect to find one every two days when we use 12 dishes, our standard number at present,” team leader Dr. Keith Bannister, from CSIRO, said in a statement. “We turned the telescope into the Sauron of space – the all-seeing eye.”
And while the Tolkein reference might seem bombastic, the team has demonstrated what ASKAP is capable of doing. The researchers pointed the eight antennas in slightly different directions in the sky, covering about 240 square degrees all at once (about 1,000 times the area of the full Moon). This “eye of a fly” configuration was key to spotting the radio burst.
The new detection, known as FRB 170107, was spotted in January and it appears to come from the constellation Leo, the lion. But it was in no way related to the stars in the constellations. The FRB was estimated to have originated 6 billion light-years away.
What we know so far about FRBs is only what we can measure. They are quick and intense emissions of radio waves lasting just a few milliseconds. Apart from one, they do not repeat, which has made it very difficult for scientists to understand their true origin.
Based on the radio wave signals, the cause behind FRBs must be very powerful. In the case of FRB 170107, based on the distance, the energy that must have produced it was absolutely enormous. So researchers have proposed several extreme possibilities for their origins.
They could be supermassive black holes, hypernovae, or highly magnetized stars. The issue so far is that nobody has been able to find a counterpart of the radio signal in another wavelength, so we are not really sure what they look like apart from the millisecond radio signal.
Astronomers expect that about 10,000 FRBs should be visible in the sky every day. Obviously, we can’t monitor the whole sky constantly but thanks to ASKAP, we know have a larger view of this mysterious radio universe.