Mystery cosmic radio bursts pinpointed
January 4th, 2017
By Paul Rincon Science editor, BBC News website
They're one of the most persistent puzzles in modern astronomy.
As the name suggests, Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are short-lived - but powerful - pulses of radio waves from the cosmos.
Their brevity, combined with the fact that it's difficult to pinpoint their location, have ensured their origins remain enigmatic.
Outlining their work at a major conference, astronomers say they have now traced the source of one of these bursts to a different galaxy.
It's an important step to finally solving the mystery, which has spawned a variety of different possible explanations, from black holes to extra-terrestrial intelligence.
The first FRB was discovered in 2007, in archived data from the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia. Astronomers were searching for new examples of magnetised neutron stars called pulsars, but found a new phenomenon - a radio burst from 2001. Since then, 18 FRBs - also referred to as "flashes" or "sizzles" - have been found in total.
Image copyright NRAO Image caption The VLA in New Mexico allowed for high resolution imaging of the radio burst
"I don't exaggerate when I say there are more theories for what these could be than there are observed bursts," first author of the new study, Shami Chatterjee, told the BBC's Science in Action programme.
All FRBs were found using single-dish radio telescopes that are unable to narrow down the sources' locations with enough precision to further characterise the flashes.
But Dr Chatterjee, from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and colleagues used a multi-antenna radio telescope called the Karl G Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, which had sufficient resolution to precisely determine the location of a flash known as FRB 121102.
Unlike all the others, this FRB - discovered in 2012 - has recurred several times.