If you just spent $200 million and five years building the world’s largest radio telescope, you would want to see some fast results. Well, the aptly-named FAST (Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope) took less than six months of operation to make China’s government happy with its investment. This week, the astronomers manning the giant telescope announced it has picked up over 100 fast radio bursts from a single source 3 billion light years just since late August — the largest number of the pulses ever detected from a single location, making FRB 121102 the greatest repeating FRB ever discovered. Will it expect a prize?
"Our goal is to catch up and eventually have hundreds of new discoveries every year."
Li Di, FAST's chief scientist and leader of the radio astronomy division of the National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), told ScienceAlert he thinks announcements like this one are just the tip of the FAST-berg of new discoveries in the areas of pulsars, fast radio bursts and hydrogen detections – FAST’s specialties. While FAST didn’t discover FRB 121102 – that honor goes to the Arecibo Observatory Puerto Rico – it’s the first to be able to lock onto an FRB location and detect repeating bursts. Using its 19-beam receiver that picks up radio signals in the 1.05-1.45 GHz frequency range, FAST blew up the one-day record for detecting FRBs on September 3rd when it picked up over 20 from FRB 121102. Now that it has detected over 100 and counting, astronomers may have sufficient data to determine what is generating these milliseconds-long pulses that are powerful enough to travel 3 billion light years. To put that power in perspective, just one burst discharges the same amount of energy as 500 million of our suns.
"I just think it is so amazing that nature produces something like that. Also, I think that there is some very important information in that structure that we just have to figure out how to encode and it has been a lot of fun to try to figure out what exactly that is."
Fun? What if it’s an advanced civilization testing out its new weaponry? Physicist Ziggy Pleunis of McGill University is as impressed with whatever is sending the FRBs (he’s hoping it’s a star collision or some natural source) as he is with the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope. The Chinese government and NAOC should be as well.
Let’s hope they keep its door open to astronomers from around the world and no one leader ticks them off enough to eliminate his or her country from sharing in the discoveries.