Using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, astronomers have discovered a split-second burst of radio waves, providing important new evidence of mysterious pulses that appear to come from deep in outer space.
The finding marks the first time that a so-called “fast radio burst” has been detected using an instrument other than the Parkes radio telescope in Australia.
Scientists using the Parkes Observatory have recorded a handful of such events, but the lack of any similar findings by other facilities had led to speculation that the Australian instrument might have been picking up signals originating from sources on or near Earth.
“Our result is important because it eliminates any doubt that these radio bursts are truly of cosmic origin,” said Victoria Kaspi, an astrophysics professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
“The radio waves show every sign of having come from far outside our galaxy – a really exciting prospect,” Kaspi added.
Exactly what may be causing such radio bursts represents a major new enigma for astrophysicists.
Possibilities include a range of exotic astrophysical objects, such as evaporating black holes, mergers of neutron stars, or flares from magnetars – a type of neutron star with extremely powerful magnetic fields.
“Another possibility is that they are bursts much brighter than the giant pulses seen from some pulsars,” said James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University in the US.
The bursts appear to be coming from beyond the Milky Way galaxy based on measurement of an effect known as plasma dispersion.
The findings appeared in The Astrophysical Journal.