Mystery bursts from space detected by the Parkes radiotelescope

The Parkes radiotelescope credit: Wikipedia commons Source: Ars Technica

Ars Technica has this report by John Timmer.  The Parkes radiotelescope is impressive if lopsided in appearance.  The origin of the milliseconds long bursts that researchers detected is not known, even the location has not been penned down.  According to Timmer’s report, the question remains as to whether the mystery bursts originated from within our galaxy.  The couple of other reports I have skimmed over in the last few days have concluded that the bursts came from outside the galaxy and therefore must have happened as a result of some catastrophe long ago that we’re just now picking up on.

Timmer’s report does support the idea of a catastrophe but does not assume that it happened long ago nor far away, although he leans toward far away.  Instead, he writes from the perspective of those who studied the surveys taken by the Parkes radiotelescope and concludes that this may be a common occurrence.  Here’s how the mystery unfolds, according to Timmer:

There’s really not a lot to say about the Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) themselves. Four were identified that differ largely in intensity; all of them lasted for less than five milliseconds. If the events were associated with bursts at high-energy wavelengths, then we have hardware in space that should have detected them. Although the radiotelescope used for the survey couldn’t provide careful location information, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the area reported at optical wavelengths, either.[Emphasis added]

If the radio bursts were coming from within our galaxy, then a variety of situations could produce signals with that kind of energy. So, the authors tried to figure out where the bursts are coming from. To do that, they relied on the fact that radiowaves interact with the ionized interstellar gas in a way that alters their spectrum. The more gas they interact with, the larger the effect. Based on the properties of these FRBs, it appears they went through a lot of gas. But their locations indicate that they didn’t travel through much of our galaxy’s gas, which implies that they must also be affected by some combination of the source galaxy and the intergalactic medium.

If they’re that far away, then they must be very energetic. “At cosmological distances, this indicates that they are more luminous than bursts from any known transient radio source,” the authors noted, before concluding that this indicates “that the FRBs are likely cataclysmic in nature.” But it can’t be a rare cataclysm; based on the amount of sky surveyed and the frequency of the FRBs they detected, the authors estimated that as many as 104 might be visible across the entire sky.

Read the full report, click here.  It’s hard to understand how such a radio burst would not also be detected in the visual spectrum.  So, it’s like a fast radio burst that’s otherwise unperceived.  This reminds me of seeing ET’s glowing finger for the first time.  It’s a mystery.


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