Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are some of the most peculiar astronomical events we have ever encountered. For just a fraction of a second, a powerful burst of radio waves is detected by telescopes. Many of these events could be happening in the sky every day but so far most of the detected ones have been serendipitously discovered. And often, they are discovered a long time after they have happened.
Given that they last only a few milliseconds, discovering their source has also been complicated. The event known as FRB 121102 is one of the two known repeating ones and has been identified originating from a small dwarf galaxy. The origins of two non-repeating ones have also been discovered thanks to the extremely quick work of astronomers.
Now, researchers led by a team at Swinburne University of Technology have a way to make these detections in real time using artificial intelligence (AI). Employing a method called machine learning, the team has trained an algorithm to recognize the signature of an FRB and observe the finest details of the event.
As reported in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the astronomers successfully detected five FRBs in real time using the Molonglo Radio Observatory near Canberra, Australia. Follow-up observations with other telescopes couldn’t pinpoint a source but were able to see peculiar features of the FRB signals, providing new clues about their origin.
“It is fascinating to discover that a signal that traveled halfway through the universe, reaching our telescope after a journey of a few billion years, exhibits complex structure, like peaks separated by less than a millisecond,” lead author Wael Farah said in a statement.
The algorithm can distinguish between millions of other events, from lightning storms to pulsars to people opening a microwave before the counter reaches zero (those signals are remarkably similar to FRBs).
The data also led to the revision of a previous estimate of the number of FRBs that reach Earth on any given day. In their paper, they estimate there should be between 59 and 157 events in the sky each day, seven times lower than previous estimates from other radio telescope observations. Hopefully, this kind of technology will help us detect a lot more of these intriguing signals in the future.