An international team of researchers have detected mysterious bursts of radio waves originating from billions of light years away.
Six years ago, a single burst lasting less than a tenth of an eye blink had been reported. It was so ephemeral that scientists were unsure whether it actually took place or not. But this time round, the 64 metre Parkes radio telescope in Australia recorded 4 such bursts of very high energy radio waves coming from a very long distance.
The scientists also think that the findings suggest that there should be one of these signals going off every 10 seconds if the whole sky is observed through ‘radio eyes’, that is, through telescopes that detect radio waves.
The findings are reported on Friday in the journal Science. The research team was made up of scientists from the University of Manchester, the Max-Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Bonn, and from various institutions in Australia, US and Italy.
The scientists studied the energy of these bursts and concluded that they originate from an extreme astrophysical event involving relativistic objects such as neutron stars or black holes. They ruled out terrestrial sources for the fast radio bursts and say their brightness and distance suggest they come from cosmological distances when the universe was just half its current age.
Study lead Dan Thornton of the University of Manchester and Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, said the findings pointed to some extreme events involving large amounts of mass or energy as the source of the radio bursts, a statement from the university said.
He said: “A single burst of radio emission of unknown origin was detected outside our galaxy about six years ago but no one was certain what it was or even if it was real, so we have spent the last four years searching for more of these explosive, short-duration radio bursts. This paper describes four more bursts, removing any doubt that they are real. The radio bursts last for just a few milliseconds and the furthest one that we detected was 11 billion light years away.”
“The bursts last only a tenth of the blink of an eye. With current telescopes we need to be lucky to look at the right spot at the right time. But if we could view the sky with ‘radio eyes’ there would be flashes going off all over the sky every day,” explained Max-Planck institute director and Manchester professor, Michael Kramer, the statement said.
Co-author Professor Matthew Bailes, from the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, thinks the origin of these explosive bursts may be from magnetic neutron stars, known as ‘magnetars’. He said: “Magnetars can give off more energy in a millisecond than our sun does in 300,000 years and are a leading candidate for the burst.”
The researchers say their results will also provide a way of finding out the properties of space between the Earth and where the bursts occurred.
Author Dr Ben Stappers, from Manchester’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “We are still not sure about what makes up the space between galaxies, so we will be able to use these radio bursts like probes in order to understand more about some of the missing matter in the universe. We are now starting to use Parkes and other telescopes, like the Lovell Telescope of the University of Manchester, to look for these bursts in real time.”