Astronomers have made a major breakthrough in their understanding of fast radio bursts (FRBs). For the first time, they have linked one of these mysterious events to the galaxy it originated from.
FRBs are quick high-energy emissions of radio waves lasting a few milliseconds. Only 18 of these have been observed so far, and one of them – FRB 121102 – has the unique characteristic of repeating itself. Now, an international team of astronomers was able to pinpoint the origin of FRB 121102 itself.
The results have been published in Nature and the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The findings were also presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Grapevine, Texas.
"We now know that this particular burst comes from a dwarf galaxy more than three billion light-years from Earth," said lead author Shami Chatterjee of Cornell University in a statement. "That simple fact is a huge advance in our understanding of these events."
The international group used the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array to obtain more precise observations of the burst. They discovered that there was a nearby weaker source and were able to characterize it by using even more instruments like the Very Long Base Array, the Arecibo telescope, and the European Very Long Base Interferometer.
"These ultra high precision observations showed that the bursts and the persistent source must be within 100 light-years of each other," said Jason Hessels, of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy and the University of Amsterdam.
"We think that the bursts and the continuous source are likely to be either the same object or that they are somehow physically associated with each other," added Benito Marcote of the Joint Institute for VLBI ERIC, Dwingeloo, Netherlands.
FRBs were first discovered in 2007, and many explanations have been put forward to explain their completely unique signature. FRB 121102 was even more puzzling, but repeated observations and its location suggest a highly magnetized star or the supermassive black hole at the center of a dwarf galaxy.
"We do have to keep in mind that this FRB is the only one known to repeat, so it may be physically different from the others," cautioned Bryan Butler of NRAO.
Astronomers believe that about 10,000 FRBs reach Earth every single day, so the hunt for more of these curious events is definitely on.