Fast radio burst (FRB): Mysterious repeating radio signal in deep space discovered

Christopher Davidson
January 10, 2019

The repeating FRB detected this past summer by CHIME is only the second one of its kind ever recorded, following one that was detected in 2012. Knowing that there is another suggests that there could be more out there.

This particular set of signals was registered by the CHIME observatory, located in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, which consists of four 100-metre-long, semi-cylindrical antennas that are able to scan the entire northern sky each day. One FRB in particular, FRB 121102, is special because it's the only one that seems to be repeating its signal blasts on a regular basis.

The researchers said that studying the fast radio bursts is a hard task because they're rare and only occur once.

Astronomers have picked up a mysterious repeating signal coming from an unknown source in space.

A telescope in British Columbia, otherwise known as Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), detected 13 pulses - or fast radio bursts (FRBs) - in July and August, according to a Monday report from Nature, a British scientific journal.

The most likely explanation is that they were created by powerful objects in space.

The first repeated burst was discovered by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 2015.

At distances of billions of light years it's obviously very hard to test any of these theories, but detecting more FRBs, especially those that have a habit of repeating, could bring us closer to an explanation. "We haven't solved the problem, but it's several more pieces in the puzzle", says Tom Landecker, a CHIME team member from the National Research Council of Canada.

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The majority of the 13 FRBs detected showed signs of "scattering", a phenomenon that reveals information about the environment surrounding a source of radio waves.

'Or near the central black hole in a galaxy.

"This is good news for radio telescopes that are sensitive at lower radio frequencies", she said. "But it has to be in some special place to give us all the scattering that we see".

Theories about the source of the signal range from a neutron star with a very strong magnetic field that is spinning very rapidly, two neutron stars merging together, and a small number have stated their belief it could be some form of alien spaceship.

The FRBs discovered were omitting unusually low frequencies, with previously detected FRBs having frequencies around 1,400 megahertz and the new discoveries bellow 800 MHz.

"[We now know] the sources can produce low-frequency radio waves and those low-frequency waves can escape their environment, and are not too scattered to be detected by the time they reach the Earth", he said.

"That could mean [the source is] in some sort of dense clump like a supernova remnant", team member Cherry Ng, an astronomer at the University of Toronto, said in a statement.

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