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Astronomers identify for the first time the source of a fast radio burst

For the first time astronomers have pinned down the location of a fast radio burst (FRBs), short bursts lasting only seconds that were only discovered about a decade ago.

A dim dwarf galaxy 2.5 billion light years from Earth is sending out the mysterious millisecond-long blasts of radio waves, researchers report Wednesday in Nature and Astrophysical Journal Letters. The bursts traverse vast expanses of time and intergalactic space before reaching our planet. “This really is the first ironclad association of a fast radio burst with another astronomical source, so it’s a pretty huge result,” said Duncan Lorimer, an astronomer at West Virginia University who reported the first detection of a fast radio burst (FRB) in 2007.

The uncertainty of science: Only 18 FRBs have been identified since they were first discovered. Until now, it was unclear whether they occurred in our galaxy or beyond, though it was suspected they were coming from other galaxies. This discovery proves that. What remains unknown is what causes the burst, which signals an energy pulse equivalent to that of 500 million suns.

“I am not exaggerating when I say there are more models for what FRBs could be than there are FRBs,” said Cornell astronomer Shami Chatterjee, the lead author of the new Nature paper. Many scientists think the bursts are emitted by distant neutron stars, the super-dense embers of exploded suns. But some believe they must originate in our own galaxy. Still more suggest that FRBs could be caused by cataclysms like a supernova or a collision of two stars. This last theory was compelling because most FRB detections were one-off events — astronomers never spotted more than one flare from a single source.

Today’s announcement was made possible by the fact that the burst itself is repeating. In fact, it is the only FRB so far known to do so, which also means that what they learn about it might not be applicable to the other bursts.

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