Just four days after it began its search, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder telescope has detected a set of rare radio waves known as ‘fast radio bursts’ coming from the constellation Leo.
These elusive signals last just a few milliseconds, and are thought to originate billions of light-years away – but, scientists don’t yet know what causes them.
Researchers have likened the powerful instrument, near Murchison in Western Australia, to the fictional dark overlord Sauron, the ‘all-seeing eye’ of the Lord of the Rings series, and they say it could soon be spotting new FRBs every few days.
The team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Curtin University, and the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) discovered the new burst using just eight of the telescope’s dishes.
The instrument is equipped with 36 dishes in total, which can be used either to look at one point of the sky, or be pointed in different directions to like the segments of a fly’s eye, according to CSIRO.
Using eight dishes, the instrument can see 240 square degrees all at once.
The new burst, dubbed FRB170107, was extremely bright, the researchers say, making it easy to spot.
And, by using additional dishes, the researchers say they’ll be able to find others as well.
‘We can expect to find one every two days when we use 12 dishes, our standard number at present,’ Dr Bannister said.
‘We turned the telescope into the Sauron of space – the all-seeing eye.’
This particular FRB came from the edge of the constellation Leo, the researchers say.
And, it likely travelled through space for six billion years before it was intercepted by the telescope.
It was traveling at the speed of light, and researchers say its brightness and apparent distance suggest there was an enormous amount of energy involved.
This new understanding, however, only further complicates the problem of figuring out its source.
‘We’ve made a hard problem even harder,’ said Dr Ryan Shannon, of CSIRO, Curtain University, and ICRAR, who analyzed the burst’s strength and position.
Experts now say the ASKAP in Western Australia could lead the way for the detection of these mysterious signals, after finding its first burst so quickly.
‘Radio astronomy has a long history of innovation in high-speed communications,’ said CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall, ‘and this unique capability is embedded into ASKAP – from the receiver to the signal processing – making it a uniquely powerful instrument for astronomy.’