The Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts

One of the more intriguing mysteries in astronomy today come from what we call "fast radio bursts." The first one appeared in the year 2007 in the form of a sudden, very large burst of radio waves. What followed afterward was equally interesting, and that was pure silence.

Astronomers pointed their radio telescopes in the same general region of sky for years and just could not manage to detect another burst episode. Could this have been a one-off event, or perhaps an event coming from a terrestrial source (Earth)?

Some purported that perhaps the detection was a complete accident, citing that a microwave oven operating with the door open could leave a radio signature similar to what was seen by the radio astronomers. So now, might the fast radio burst causing all this ruckus have been the result of a hungry astronomer?

Astronomers would have to wait patiently for another 8 years before finally being rewarded with the detection a rich set of 25 sudden radio bursts each with a duration of only thousandths of a second. As a result of these new outbursts, astronomers finally pinpointed the source.

The source of this piercing radio light is a small and very distant galaxy in an otherwise serene part of the sky. But the mystery continues, as it remains unknown which of the approximately 10 billion stars that reside in this faint and distant galaxy makes those sudden “screams” in the night.

Were these ratio burst perhaps emitted instead by the gas surrounding a newly formed black hole? Or perhaps there was a black hole as the center of the galaxy that incited the short-lived episodes of radio loudness, or something else? It will take still more patience and effort to decide between these two and a number of other choices.

The only bit we do know for certain is that the hungry astronomer potentially operating the microwave oven is off the hook.

Dr. Brenda Frye

About Dr. Brenda Frye

Brenda L. Frye is an observational cosmologist at the Department of Astronomy/Steward Observatory, University of Arizona. She earned her Ph. D. in Astrophysics from the University of California at Berkeley, assisted by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Her thesis work involved measuring the concentration of the total mass of visible plus dark matter in the fields of massive galaxy clusters, a program requiring the use of some of the largest telescopes in the world.

Moving a mile from her Ph. D. institution, she assumed a postdoctoral position with the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory under the direction of Professor Saul Permutter.

She then treked across the country to take a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Princeton Council on Sciences and Technology Fellowship both at Princeton University.

Moving further east, she became a Lecturer in Physics at Dublin City University in Dublin, Ireland, where a number of European collaborations were formed.

From there she crossed back across the pond to the west coast of the U. S. to become a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of San Francisco.

Her travels have now landed her at her Alma Mater in Tucson, where she teaches and does research. The aims of her research continue to be to use gravitational telescopes in space as 'lenses' to study the properties of dark matter and those of distant galaxies back to when the universe was <900 million years old.

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The Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts — 3 Comments

  1. I know it isn’t terribly insightful, but your reference to a microwave oven made me think of the episode of the Simpsons when Stephen Hawking comments on Homer Simpson’s “theory” of a doughnut shaped universe. I’m excited to see where this mother of all needle in a haystack leads us. However, there was a comical moment thinking of a grad student heating up a burrito in the middle of the night who suddenly thought, “What happens if I do this?” Thanks Brenda!

  2. Thank you for the comment. Another interesting tale which does have a mundane explanation happened when mysterious absorption features appeared in the spectra of stars by a research group in France that were entirely absent from the spectra of the same stars by a research group in California. An astute colleague on the California side thought for a moment and then devised a plan. He repeated the observation on the California side while lighting a cigarette and voila! The mysterious features were attributed to particulates in the cigarette smoke..

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