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New fast radio burst reveals missing cosmic matter

"It's the first time we've been able to identify the host galaxy of an FRB," astronomer Evan Keane.
By Brooks Hays   |   Feb. 24, 2016 at 4:50 PM

MACHESTER, England, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- A phenomenon known as a fast radio burst has allowed scientists to confirm the distribution of matter in the universe as predicted by astronomical models.

The fast radio burst was detected last year by an observatory in Australia. Astronomers around the world quickly attuned their radio telescopes to pick on up the burst of radio waves.

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, have been regularly recorded by astronomers, but scientists have gathered few details about their origins. This time, the Australian Telescope Compact Array was able to pick up and observe a burst's afterglow for six days and pinpoint its origin location.

Afterward, astronomers with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or CSIRO, recruited the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan's 8.2-meter Subaru optical telescope to study the FRB's origin site. Its path traced to an elliptical galaxy located 6 billion light-years from our solar system.

"It's the first time we've been able to identify the host galaxy of an FRB," astronomer Evan Keane said in a news release.

Keane is a project scientist at the Square Kilometer Array Organization, an effort by researchers at the University of Manchester to build the world's largest radio telescope.

Astronomers were also able to measure the redshift between the FRB's origin and Earth, revealing the rate at which the universe is expanding and at which bodies like Earth and a distant galaxy are moving away from each other.

Initial observations allowed astronomers to measure the FRB's frequency-dependent dispersion, a delay in the burst's radio signals that reveals density and nature of the matter through which the radio waves traveled.

"Until now, the dispersion measure is all we had. By also having a distance we can now measure how dense the material is between the point of origin and Earth, and compare that with the current model of the distribution of matter in the Universe" explained Simon Johnston, a researcher with CSIRO's Astronomy and Space Science division. "Essentially this lets us weigh the universe, or at least the normal matter it contains."

Just five percent of the universe is made up of ordinary, or visible, matter. So far, astronomers have visually confirmed the existence of only about half that matter. But the latest revelations suggest the missing matter is indeed out there.

"The good news is our observations and the model match, we have found the missing matter," said Keane. "It's the first time a fast radio burst has been used to conduct a cosmological measurement."

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

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