There are many things in this universe we do not understand. How Donald Trump is president, for example. Or why people put pineapple on pizza.
But Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are another of those cosmic mysteries, strange short bursts of radio energy that appear in our night sky. While we’re still not sure of their origin, a scientist has now confirmed they definitely do come from outer space.
That might seem like an odd bit of research, but it’s important to know these really are something cosmic, and not just interference from other instruments or our atmosphere. Let’s not forget the infamous microwave oven that had astronomers baffled for decades.
This latest research was led by Manisha Caleb, a PhD candidate at Australian National University, Swinburne University of Technology, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO). It will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, and is available to read on arXiv.
Using the Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (MOST) near Canberra, Australia, she worked with colleagues to study three FRBs. This observatory has been upgraded with an array of antennas, called the UTMOST array, with a collecting area of 18,000 square meters (190,000 square feet), making it better at pinpointing the location of FRBs than a traditional dish telescope.
The array couldn’t work out the exact distance to the FRBs. But it was able to say unequivocally that they came from outer space. No pesky kitchen appliance interference here.
“Figuring out where the bursts come from is the key to understanding what makes them,” Caleb said in a statement. “Only one burst has been linked to a specific galaxy. We expect Molonglo will do this for many more bursts.”
The three FRBs that were detected were called FRB 160317, 160410, and 160608. They were detected in March 2016, April 2016, and June 2016 respectively. Based on the measurements, at least two of them seemed to be coming from outside our galaxy.
In their paper, the researchers note that the next step will be to detect FRBs over a broad frequency range. They noted that using UTMOST in the future, it could be possible to narrow down the exact location of a particular FRB.
As mentioned, though, we still don’t know what they are. These radio pulses last only a few thousandths of a second, but while brief, they remain one of the most mysterious things we can see in the universe at the moment.