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Cosmic radio burst caught red-handed

January 19, 2015

Swinburne University of Technology PhD student, Emily Petroff, ‘saw’ the burst live – a first for astronomers.

Lasting only milliseconds, the first such radio burst was discovered in 2007 by astronomers combing old Parkes data archives for unrelated objects.

Six more bursts, apparently from outside our Galaxy, have now been found with the Parkes telescope and a seventh with the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico.

Astronomers worldwide have been vying to explain the phenomenon.

“These bursts were generally discovered weeks, months or even more than a decade after they happened,” Ms Petroff said.

“We are the first to catch one in real time.”

Confident that she would spot a ‘live’ burst, Ms Petroff had an international team of astronomers poised to make rapid follow-up observations, at wavelengths from radio to X-ray.

“These bursts were generally discovered weeks, months or even more than a decade after they happened. We are the first to catch one in real time.”

Ms Emily Petroff

After the Parkes telescope saw the burst go off, the team swung into action on twelve telescopes around the world – in Australia, California, the Canary Islands, Chile, Germany, Hawaii, and India – as well as space-based telescopes.

“We can rule out some ideas because no counterparts were seen in the optical, infrared, ultraviolet or X-ray,” CSIRO’s Head of Astrophysics, Dr Simon Johnston said.

“However, the neat idea that we are seeing a neutron star imploding into a black hole remains a possibility.”

One of the big unknowns of fast radio bursts is their distance. The characteristics of the radio signal – how it is ‘smeared out’ in frequency from travelling through space – indicate that the source of the new burst was up to 5.5 billion light-years away.

“This means it could have given off as much energy in a few milliseconds as the Sun does in a day,” Ms Petroff said.

She said identifying the origin of the fast radio bursts is now only a matter of time.

“We’ve set the trap. Now we just have to wait for another burst to fall into it.”

The finding is published today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society [external link].

Ms Petroff is co-supervised by CSIRO and Swinburne University of Technology, which is a member institution of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO).

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