Astronomers have detected very fast bursts of radio waves coming from deep in outer space and they don’t know the source.
Scientists initially detected the pulses at the Parkes Observatory in Australia, but the bursts were not confirmed by another radio telescope facility until now.
A team at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico detected the pulse on November 2, 2012. Arecibo boasts the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, with a radio-mirror dish spanning 305 meters and covering about 20 acres.
“Our result is important because it eliminates any doubt that these radio bursts are truly of cosmic origin,” says Victoria Kaspi, an astrophysics professor at McGill University in Montreal and principal investigator for the pulsar-survey project that detected this fast radio burst.
“The radio waves show every sign of having come from far outside our galaxy—a really exciting prospect.”
Exactly what may be causing such radio bursts represents a major new enigma for astrophysicists. Possibilities include a range of exotic astrophysical objects, such as evaporating black holes, mergers of neutron stars, or flares from magnetars—a type of neutron star with extremely powerful magnetic fields.
“Another possibility is that they are bursts much brighter than the giant pulses seen from some pulsars,” notes James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University and coauthor of the new study published in the Astrophysical Journal.
While fast radio bursts last just a few thousandths of a second and have rarely been detected, the international team of scientists reporting the Arecibo finding confirm previous estimates that these strange cosmic bursts occur roughly 10,000 times a day over the whole sky.