While Navy pilots and politicians are looking on Earth for UFOs and evidence of extraterrestrial life forms (unless they’ve already found them and aren’t telling us – that’s a different article and conspiracy theory), astronomers continue to scan the skies for what they believe is the best sign of other life forms – those mysterious fast radio bursts of cosmic radio waves. Only 85 have been picked up since the first ones were discovered in 2007 and most have been single bursts, making it impossible to trace them back to their source galaxy. That changed recently when a new technology allowed astronomers to catch a burst in the act of bursting and follow it back to its home. Yes, this is a REALLY big deal.
"This is the big breakthrough that the field has been waiting for since astronomers discovered fast radio bursts in 2007."
In a press release announcing the publication of the details in the journal Science, lead author Dr. Keith Bannister described how astronomers in Australia used the new CISRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope in Western Australia that had been equipped with even newer technology to freeze and save the telescope’s data less than a second after a burst was detected. The fast radio burst was named FRB 180924 and the team fed the captured data into three of the world's largest optical telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the Gemini South telescope in Chile and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT), also in Chile. Those three monsters followed the burst back to the edge of the DES J214425.25?405400.81 galaxy, a Milky Way-sized formation about 3.6 billion light-years away.
How did they do it? ASKAP is an array of dish antennas, which means the burst traveled a slightly different distance to reach each one. The technology was able to split the differences and determine not only the galaxy the FRB came from but the origin’s distance from the galaxy’s center – about 13,000 light-years.
"It comes from a massive galaxy that is forming relatively few stars. This suggests that fast radio bursts can be produced in a variety of environments, or that the seemingly one-off bursts detected so far by ASKAP are generated by a different mechanism to the repeater."
Dr Adam Deller of Swinburne University of Technology points out another of the revolutionary discoveries about this FRB – that the bursts can originate from any type of galaxy. The “repeater” he refers to is the only other FRB – in this case, a group of repeating bursts – that has been traced back to its galaxy, which was a tiny one that was generating a lot of stars.
Why else is this a big deal? Fast radio bursts are altered by the matter they encounter in space. By tracing them back their source, astronomers can more accurately measure the amount of matter in space. Still not impressed? Here’s Dr. Bannister describing the accuracy of these billions of light years measurements:
"If we were to stand on the Moon and look down at the Earth with this precision, we would be able to tell not only which city the burst came from, but which postcode - and even which city block." Dr Bannister said.
Sorry, it's not proof of extraterrestrials ... yet. But it's definitely a REALLY big deal.