The most distant radio burst ever observed was detected by an Australian radio telescope. Phenomena like this are still a mystery, but scientists in Australia have demonstrated that measuring them can help us weigh the universe more accurately.
Fast radio bursts (called Fast Radio Bursts, FRB) are one of the most mysterious phenomena we have ever observed. We don’t know what exactly is the source of these millisecond-long bursts of radio radiation – hypotheses point to black holes, magnetars or supernova explosions.
FRBs come from the distant ends of the Universe, and due to their unstable nature, they are difficult to observe. As a study published in Science shows, the team operating the ASKAP radio telescope in Australia succeeded in this feat – and in great style.
From a galaxy far, far away
The fast radio burst FRB 20220610A was spotted in June last year. Scientists immediately began investigating the phenomenon, focusing on where it came from.
“Using ASKAP’s array of antennas, we were able to pinpoint where the flash came from,” said Stuart Ryder of Macquarie University in Australia, lead author of the study. – We then used the VLT telescope in Chile to find its home planet galaxy.
It turned out that the source of FRB 20220610A was a galaxy much further away from us than in the case of previously measured FRBs – the phenomenon halved the previous distance record held by the research group. Its light takes eight billion years to reach us. The FRB also turned out to be one of the most energetic – in a fraction of a second it released energy equivalent to the emission from the Sun for over 30 years.
Weighing the Universe
Searching for radio bursts can be used to measure “missing” matter, allowing us to “weigh” the universe more precisely. Current methods of estimating its mass give contradictory results and pose a challenge to scientists.
– If we add up the amount of ordinary matter in the Universe, i.e. the atoms that make us up, it turns out that more than half of what should exist is missing, explained co-author Ryan Shannon from Swinburne University of Technology. – We think the missing material is hidden in the spaces between galaxies, but it may be so hot and fuzzy that it is impossible to see it using conventional methods.
The scientist explained that fast radio bursts can “see” all electrons even in almost perfectly empty space. This allows us to measure how much matter is between galaxies
– While we still don’t know what causes these massive bursts of energy, our results show that fast radio bursts are common events in space and that we can use them (…) to better understand the structure of the Universe – he said.
In the future, astronomers will have the tools to detect older and more distant bursts, pinpoint their host galaxies, and measure the missing matter in the universe. The international Square Kilometer Array Observatory (SKAO) is building radio telescopes in South Africa and Australia that will be able to find thousands of FRBs, including very distant ones that are impossible to detect with current devices. The Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) being built by the European Southern Observatory will be able to study galaxies located even further away than the one from which FRB 20220610A comes.
Main photo source: ESO/M. Kornmesser