Fast Radio Bursts

28 January 2019

FRBs... WTF?

A fast radio burst (FRB) is just that - a single huge blast of radio energy that lasts only a few milliseconds and then stops. It's the radio version of a cosmic camera flash. What's more, there are only two sources that are known to have flashed twice. All other recorded events seem to be random.

The amount of energy contained in a single FRB would power our sun for about 80 years. That'd expose a lot of film.

The one thing we are really sure about is that they come from well outside our galaxy. But as to what causes them, we really only have theories.

Astronomers have speculated that they might be caused by collisions of black holes or neutron stars, or that they might be linked with gamma ray bursts (look these up - these nasties are an actual existential threat to the Earth!).

Of course, astronomers haven't been able to rule out artificial sources either. Alien selfies?

Canada has just finished building a new type of radio telescope that looks at swaths of sky rather than points. It's called CHIME, and should help record more FRBs so we can study them a bit more closely.

The first recorded FRB was in 2001 at the Parkes Radio Telescope, west of Sydney. However, the burst wasn't actually noticed until 2007, when a PhD student was going through archived data.

I don't know where science would be without PhD students...

Image: NASA