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Unexplained cosmic radio burst captured in real-time

"It's something nobody has ever measured before," Emily Petroff said.
By Brooks Hays   |   Jan. 19, 2015 at 7:03 PM

PARKES, Australia, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- For the first time in history, a fast radio burst (FRB) was recorded in real-time. The massive (but quickly dissipating) burst of radio waves was captured by the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

A fast radio burst, sometimes called a blitzar, is a tight band of radio-frequency waves that lasts only a millisecond. But the energy packed into that fleeting burst is the equivalent of what the sun puts out over the course of one million years.

FRBs remain unexplained by astronomers, but the leading theory posits an oversized neutron star as the culprit -- a neutron star so large that it should collapse and become black hole, only it's spinning too fast.

The capture of this brief but high-powered event is certainly monumental, researchers say. The event was actually detected last year, on May 14. But eight months later, scientists still aren't yet sure what the data means.

Whatever created this FRB must be "huge, cataclysmic and up to 5.5 billion light years away" according to Emily Petroff, a researcher at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, who recently discussed her and her colleagues' impressive but puzzling findings with New Scientist.

"It's something nobody has ever measured before," Petroff said. And while she and her research partners assume the recording will eventually reveal something new about FRBs, experts are currently at a loss as to how to interpret the recording.

"Nobody knows what to make of it," conferred Keith Bannister, a researcher at CSIRO, Australia's national science agency. "All the ideas are very exotic so ruling them out is all you can do at the moment."

The evidence of a supposed FRB was first noticed in telescopic data from Puerto Rico in 2007. The mysterious phenomenon has been observed after-the-fact a few times since. This latest study, lead by Petroff, included analysis by astronomers across the globe.

And while their reexamination of known FRB fields led to the first-ever real-time recording of a blitzar event, their research efforts have left scientists just as puzzled as they were before.

The new study detailing last year's burst was published this week in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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