Astronomers Have Pinpointed The Origin Of A Non-Repeating Fast Radio Burst For The First Time

Artist’s impression of CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope finding a fast radio burst and determining its precise location. The KECK, VLT and Gemini South optical telescopes joined ASKAP with follow-up observations to image the host galaxy. CSIRO/Dr Andrew Howells

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are extremely quick, powerful emissions of radio waves with mostly unclear origins. Just over two dozen unique examples of these FRBs are known, with only two of them seen repeating. The other ones were just flashes in the cosmic pan.

To find out how they form, we need to know where they come from. This was possible for the first repeating burst, FRB 121102, which originated in a dwarf galaxy about 3 billion light-years from us. Now, for the first time, researchers have discovered the origin of a non-repeating FRB.

As reported in Science, FRB 180924 was discovered by the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope. The observatory is made up of 36 antennae at slightly different distances, so the signal – which lasted just a fraction of a millisecond – reached each at slightly different times (less than a billionth of a second). This tiny time delay allowed the researchers to pinpoint where the burst originated.

"This is the big breakthrough the field has been waiting for since astronomers discovered fast radio bursts in 2007," CSIRO lead author Dr Keith Bannister said in a statement.

The FRB came from a large spiral galaxy by the name of DES J214425.25−405400.81. The galaxy is located 3.6 billion light-years from Earth, and the burst was roughly 13,000 light-years from the core of that galaxy.

The galaxy was observed with the European Southern Observatory’s 8-m Very Large Telescope in Chile and the distance was measured with the 10-m Keck telescope in Hawai’i and the 8-m Gemini South telescope in Chile.

The repeater, as some call FRB 121102, is believed to be caused by a neutron star moving through a powerful magnetic field. It is in a small galaxy forming lots of stars. That’s quite different from the host of FRB 180924.

"The burst we localised and its host galaxy look nothing like the ‘repeater’ and its host," co-author Dr Adam Deller, from Swinburne University of Technology, added. "It comes from a massive galaxy that is forming relatively few stars. This suggests that fast radio bursts can be produced in a variety of environments, or that the seemingly one-off bursts detected so far by ASKAP are generated by a different mechanism to the repeater."

Researchers were unable to determine the source of this powerful event, but the ability to locate it gives them hope that we might catch the after-effects of whatever is producing these spectacular bursts in the future.

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