Strange signals from space called fast radio bursts have confused astronomers for years. A new wave of observations looks set to solve the mystery
The CHIME telescope in Canada will revolutionise FRB astronomy
Andre Recnik, Dunlap Institue, CHIME
A MINOR point of interest regarding the Spitler Burst.” The subject line Paul Scholz had chosen for his email was deliberately dry, but the recipients knew instantly what its contents meant. He was sitting on a revelation that would blow open the biggest mystery in astronomy.
It was 5 November 2015 and Scholz, then a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, had spent years scouring data from the world’s largest radio telescope. Staring back from his computer screen was the usual parade of curving lines, each a potential flash in the night sky. Suddenly, Scholz realised one of them looked familiar. A millisecond pulse of radio waves was blasting from a faraway galaxy with the intensity of 500 million suns – and not for the first time.
“It was immediately clear this was something staggeringly important,” says Shami Chatterjee, an astronomer at Cornell University in New York. For a decade after the first discovery of these signals, known as fast radio bursts (FRBs), we had no idea what could be producing them. Suggestions ranged from colliding neutron stars to black holes turning themselves inside out to lasers from alien spacecraft. Until a few months ago, we had more ideas than detections.
Since Scholz’s email, however, the hunt for the source of FRBs has been moving briskly along, with new clues pointing the finger at an unusual suspect and the latest radio telescopes promising fresh leads. Even if the exact cause isn’t identified soon, these mysterious blasts can still help illuminate the universe, giving us a glimpse at what …