A Rare Repeating Fast Radio Burst Gives Astronomers a Chance to Study These Mysterious Objects

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are among the most mysterious astronomical phenomena facing astronomers today. While hundreds of bursts have been detected since the first-ever recorded detection of an FRB in 2007 – the Lorimer Burst – astronomers are still unsure what causes them. Even more mysterious, some have occasionally been found to be repeating in nature, which has fueled speculation that they may not be natural in origin (i.e., possible alien transmissions?). Astronomers are naturally very excited whenever a repeating FRB is found, as it gives them the chance to examine them closer.

In a recent survey, an international team of scientists used three major telescopes worldwide to study a repeating FRB (known as FRB 190520) that was first observed in 2019. According to their observations, this particular FRB is not just a repeating source from a compact object but a persistent one that emits low-level bursts of radio waves between larger ones. These findings raise new questions about the nature of these mysterious objects and how they can be used as tools to probe the space between stars and galaxies.

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A Pulsar has Been Found Turning so Slowly Astronomers Didn't Even Think it was Possible: Once Every 76 Seconds

Astronomy is progressing rapidly these days, thanks in part to how advances in one area can contribute to progress in another. For instance, improved optics, instruments, and data processing methods have allowed astronomers to push the boundaries of optical and infrared to gravitational wave (GW) astronomy. Radio astronomy is also advancing considerably thanks to arrays like the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa, which will join with observatories in Australia in the near future to create the Square Kilometer Array (SKA).

In particular, radio astronomers are using next-generation instruments to study phenomena like Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) and neutron stars. Recently, an international team of scientists led by the University of Manchester discovered a strange radio-emitting neutron star with a powerful magnetic field (a “magnetar”) and an extremely slow rotational period of 76 seconds. This discovery could have significant implications for radio astronomy and hints at a possible connection between different types of neutron stars and FRBs.

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Canada's CHIME is Getting More Observatories to Search for Fast Radio Bursts

CHIME consists of four metal "half-pipes", each one 100 meters long. Image Credit: CHIME/Andre Renard, Dunlap Institute.
CHIME consists of four metal "half-pipes", each one 100 meters long. Image Credit: CHIME/Andre Renard, Dunlap Institute.

In 2017, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) began to gather light from the Universe to address some of the biggest questions and astrophysics and cosmology. Located at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO) in British Columbia, this interferometric radio telescope has been a game-changer for studying Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), which remain one of the most mysterious cosmic mysteries facing astronomers today.

In the near future, CHIME will be getting an expansion that will help it more accurately identify where FRBs are coming from. This will consist of a new radio telescope outrigger located at the SETI Institute’s Hat Creek Radio Observatory (HCRO), new outriggers near Princeton, British Columbia, and at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. These will work with the main CHIME telescope to localize CHIME-detected FRBs precisely in the night sky.

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Fast Radio Bursts can now be Tracked in Real-Time

The CHIME cylindrical parabolic radio telescope near Penticton, BC. Credit: CHIME/DRAO/NRC

Located in the Okanagan Valley outside of Penticton, British Columbia, there is a massive radio observatory dedicated to observing cosmic radio phenomena. It’s called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), a cylindrical parabolic radio telescope that looks like what snowboarders would call a “half-pipe.” This array is part of the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO), overseen by the National Research Council (NRC).

Originally, the observatory was meant to detect radio waves from neutral hydrogen gas in the early Universe. Today, it is used for other objectives, such as detecting and studying Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs). Since it became operational, CHIME scientists have been busy sorting through terabytes of data to pinpoint signals, often finding several in a single day. To assist with all this data-mining and coordinate CHIMEs efforts with other facilities worldwide, scientists from McGill University have developed a new system for sharing the enormous amount of data CHIME generates.

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Something Really Wants our Attention. One Object Released 1,652 Fast Radio Bursts in 47 Days

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The energetic phenomena known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are one of the greatest cosmic mysteries today. These mysterious flashes of light are visible in the radio wave part of the spectrum and usually last only a few milliseconds before fading away forever. Since the first FRB was observed in 2007, astronomers have looked forward to the day when instruments of sufficient sensitivity would be able to detect them regularly.

That day has arrived with the completion of the 500-Meter FAST Radio Telescope (aka. Tianyan, “Eye of Heaven”). Since it commenced operations, this observatory has vastly expanded the number of detected FRBs. In fact, according to research led by the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAO/CAS), the observatory detected a total of 1,652 independent bursts from a single source in 47 days.

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CHIME Detected Over 500 Fast Radio Burst in its First Year, Providing new Clues to What’s Causing Them

CHIME consists of four metal "half-pipes", each one 100 meters long. Image Credit: CHIME/Andre Renard, Dunlap Institute.
CHIME consists of four metal "half-pipes", each one 100 meters long. Image Credit: CHIME/Andre Renard, Dunlap Institute.

Much like Dark Matter and Dark Energy, Fast Radio Burst (FRBs) are one of those crazy cosmic phenomena that continue to mystify astronomers. These incredibly bright flashes register only in the radio band of the electromagnetic spectrum, occur suddenly, and last only a few milliseconds before vanishing without a trace. As a result, observing them with a radio telescope is rather challenging and requires extremely precise timing.

Hence why the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO) in British Columbia launched the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) in 2017. Along with their partners at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Perimeter Institute, and multiple universities, CHIME detected more than 500 FRBs in its first year of operation (and more than 1000 since it commenced operations)!

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How the World’s Biggest Radio Telescope Could be Used to Search for Aliens

The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) has just finished construction in the southwestern province of Guizhou. Credit: FAST

In 2016, China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope – the largest single-aperture radio telescope in the world – gathered its first light. Since then, the telescope has undergone extensive testing and commissioning and officially went online in Jan of 2020. In all that time, it has also been responsible for multiple discoveries, including close to one hundred new pulsars.

According to a recent study by an international team of scientists and led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) suggests that FAST might have another use as well: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)! Building on their collaboration with the non-profit science organization Breakthrough Initiatives, the authors of the study highlight the ways in which FAST could allow for some novel SETI observations.

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Even More Repeating Fast Radio Bursts Discovered

Artist’s impression of CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope finding a fast radio burst and determining its precise location. The KECK, VLT and Gemini South optical telescopes joined ASKAP with follow-up observations to image the host galaxy. Credit: CSIRO/Dr Andrew Howells

In September of 2017, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) in British Columbia commenced operations, looking for signs of Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) in our Universe. These rare, brief, and energetic flashes from beyond our galaxy have been a mystery ever since the first was observed a little over a decade ago. Of particular interest are the ones that have been found to repeat, which are even rarer.

Before CHIME began collecting light from the cosmos, astronomers knew of only thirty FRBs. But thanks to CHIME’s sophisticated array of antennas and parabolic mirrors (which are especially sensitive to FRBs) that number has grown to close to 700 (which includes 20 repeaters). According to a new study led by CHIME researchers, this robust number of detections allows for new insights into what causes them.

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Canadian Telescope Finds 13 More Fast Radio Bursts Including the Second One Ever Seen Repeating

CHIME consists of four metal "half-pipes", each one 100 meters long. Image Credit: CHIME/Andre Renard, Dunlap Institute.
CHIME consists of four metal "half-pipes", each one 100 meters long. Image Credit: CHIME/Andre Renard, Dunlap Institute.

Canadian scientists using the CHIME (Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment) have detected 13 FRBs (Fast Radio Bursts), including the second-ever repeating one. And they think they’ll find even more.

CHIME is an innovative radio telescope in the Okanagan Valley region in British Columbia, Canada. It was completed in 2017, and its mission is to act as a kind of time machine. CHIME will help astronomers understand the shape, structure, and fate of the universe by measuring the composition of dark energy.

CHIME’s unique design also makes it well-suited for detecting fast radio bursts.

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Australian astronomers have been able to double the number of mysterious fast radio bursts discovered so far

Antennas of CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder with the Milky Way overhead. Credit: Alex Cherney/CSIRO

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) have become a major focus of research in the past decade. In radio astronomy, this phenomenon refers to transient radio pulses coming from distant cosmological sources, which typically last only a few milliseconds on average. Since the first event was detected in 2007 (the “Lorimer Burst”), thirty four FRBs have been observed, but scientists are still not sure what causes them.

With theories ranging from exploding stars and black holes to pulsars and magnetars – and even messages coming from extra-terrestrial intelligences (ETIs) – astronomers have been determined to learn more about these strange signals. And thanks to a new study by a team of Australian researchers, who used the Australia Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), the number of known sources of FRBs has almost doubled.

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