Mystery radio waves from space

Astronomers have detected a mysterious volley of radio waves from far outside our galaxy, according to two studies published Wednesday in the journal Nature. Where the powerful waves come from and what forces produced them are unknown.

Background

The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) is an interferometric radio telescope at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, Canada.

CHIME is a partnership between the University of British Columbia, McGill University, the University of Toronto and the Canadian National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory. A first light ceremony was held on 7 September 2017 to inaugurate the commissioning phase.

Constructed in British Columbia, CHIME is composed of four, 100-meter-long half-pipe cylinders of metal mesh which reconstruct images of the sky by processing the radio signals recorded by more than a thousand antennas.

Analysis

The so-called repeating fast radio bursts were identified during the trial run last summer of a built-for-purpose telescope running at only a fraction of its capacity.

Known by its acronym CHIME, the world’s most powerful radio telescope — spread across an area as big as a soccer pitch — is poised to detect many more of the enigmatic pulses now that it is fully operational.

“At the end of the year, we may have found 1,000 bursts,” said Deborah Good, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia and one of 50 scientists from five institutions involved in the research.

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) flash only for a micro-instant but can emit as much energy as the sun does in 10,000 years. Exactly what causes these high-energy surges of long waves at the far end of the electromagnetic spectrum remains the subject of intense debate.

More than 60 bursts have been catalogued since 2007, but only one other — observed in 2012 at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico — was a repeater.

Cosmic convulsions created by the turbulent gas clouds that give rise to stars, or stellar explosions such as supernovas, are both possible incubators. However, consecutive radio bursts are a special case. Significantly, the 2012 and 2018 “repeaters” have strikingly similar properties.

Assessment

Our assessment is that the radio bursts may not necessarily be from an extra-terrestrial origin and maybe the result of distant stars emitting large amounts of energy. We believe that as our deep space sensory capabilities increase, we will encounter more Frequent Radio bursts like these at different wavelengths.