Astronomers Discover Mysterious Radio Burst Originated Surprisingly Close To Earth

Australia Telescope Compact Array, involved in this research, points to the skies above New South Wales. CSIRO

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are violent flashes of radio waves spread through space, packing a punch with as much energy as the Sun produces over the course of nearly a century, despite lasting mere milliseconds. They were first discovered just over a decade ago, but scientists still have very little idea about what causes them.

Scientists have previously estimated these mysterious bursts come from galaxies billions of light-years from Earth. However, Aussie researchers recently went on the hunt for the host galaxy of one of these bursts, FRB 171020, only to discover that it originated from a source curiously close to Earth (well, relatively speaking).

The new research, led by Australia’s national science institute CSIRO, can be found on the preprint server arXivAustralian astronomers only discovered FRB 171020 (along with 20 other FBRs) fairly recently. With the help of the Australia Telescope Compact Array deep in New South Wales, this new study highlights that it might have originated in a galaxy known as ESO 601-G036, some 120 million light-years away from Earth. 

Galaxy ESO 601-G036 also has a similar star-formation rate and oxygen abundance to another galaxy where we know FRBs can spill out from – which was the only other instance where scientists tracked down an FRB's origin to a galaxy. For comparison, this is a dwarf galaxy some 3 billion light-years from Earth, while ESO 601-G036 is a mere 120 million light-years away.

Then again, in other respects, ESO 601-G036 could seem like a fairly unlikely candidate because it does not feature the constant low-level radio emissions seen in this galaxy.

We have only documented a handful of FBRs, although last week scientists reported that they had found 20 in a year, doubling the number detected since they were discovered in 2007. However, it's believed that thousands and thousands of FRBs reach Earth every single day.

Just like any phenomenon that is not widely understood in space, many people believe that FRBs are messages from extraterrestrials or beacons from an interstellar alien spaceship. It’s certainly not impossible, however, there’s not much to support that, other than wishful thinking. One possible explanation is that they are the “bangs” of a collision between very dense objects, such as merging black holes or neutron stars. Alternatively, they might have sprung from an especially energetic supernova.

Nevertheless, if scientists can work out more precisely where these FRBs originated, the hope is that they could discover what's causing them.

[H/T: New Scientist]

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