An artist’s impression showing part of the cosmic web, a structure of galaxies extending across the sky. The bright blue flashes are the signals from Fast Radio Bursts. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA
At least one of the mysterious bursts of radio waves from space known as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) is occurring every second, according to a new study.
FRBs, which are brief, bright bursts of radio waves that come from distant galaxies, were first detected using the Parkes Observatory in Australia in 2007.
Their exact nature and origin remains a mystery, but two astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics estimate that at least one is occurring somewhere every second.
The duo used FRB 121102, which is located in a galaxy 3 billion lightyears away and which has produced repeated bursts since it was first recorded in 2002.
Studying its history, the scientists were able to estimate how many FRBs should exist across the sky.
“If we are right about such a high rate of FRBs happening at any given time, you can imagine the sky is filled with flashes like paparazzi taking photos of a celebrity,” says Anastasia Fialkov, who led the study.
“Instead of the light we can see with our eyes, these flashes come in radio waves.”
“In the time it takes you to drink a cup of coffee, hundreds of FRBs may have gone off somewhere in the Universe,” says study co-author Avi Loeb.
“If we can study even a fraction of those well enough, we should be able to unravel their origin.”
One idea is that FRBs are the byproducts of neutron stars, which are the rapidly spinning remnants of massive stars that have died.
Although their origin has not been confirmed, Fialkov and Loeb say they can still be used to study the structure and evolution of the Universe
They could be used to trace what caused the ‘fog’ of hydrogen atoms in the early Universe to break down into electrons and protons after the Big Bang.
“FRBs are like incredibly powerful flashlights that we think can penetrate this fog and be seen over vast distances,” says Fialkov.
“This could allow us to study the ‘dawn’ of the Universe in a new way.”