Solving A Mystery: CMU Researchers Help Find Elusive Space Signal

Dec 7, 2015

A team of astronomers examined more than 650 hours of radio waves from the Green Bank Telescope (pictured) and found the most-detailed record ever of a Fast Radio Burst.
Credit NASA / nasa.gov

For nearly a decade, astronomers have been puzzled by brief, but bright eruptions of radio waves coming from space called Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). A team of astronomers, including two from Carnegie Mellon University, uncovered the most detailed record ever of an FRB.

What Is It?

Put simply, an FRB is a flash of radio brightness that appears in the sky and then never repeats. It’s a powerful radio wave coming from extremely far away.

“It’s a mystery, we don’t know what the source of these flashes is, they seem to be incredibly bright because they’re coming from very great distances – halfway across the known universe,” said Jeffrey Peterson, professor of physics at CMU.

According to astronomers, it’s believed that the observable universe experiences thousands of these a day – only 15 had been documented, this one will make 16. They were first reported nearly a decade ago, but none of the events have revealed much in the way of details.

Starting To Unravel The Mystery

After examining more than 650 hours of archival data from the National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Telescope (The world's largest, steerable radio telescope), a more detailed record of an RFB was found. It didn’t solve the whole mystery, but did answer some questions.

“Sometimes radio telescopes pick up radio interference from peoples’ cell phones, microwave ovens and things like that and so there was a worry that these radio flashes were actually coming from Earth and not from space, we are convinced that ours is really from outside the galaxy,” said Peterson.

The group’s research indicates the FRB may have passed through a powerful magnetic field as well as through two distinct regions of ionized gas, called screens. These and other details could help researchers determine where they are coming from and what they are, though they do have some guesses.

“They might be kind of star quakes on neutron star called a magnetar,” said Peterson, “they could be coming from exploding stars, we’re really unsure about where they are coming from. They are so bright; they are among the brightest objects that astronomers have ever detected.”

The findings have excited astronomers and are published in the Dec. 3 issue of Nature.