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Arecibo Telescope Detects Mysterious Radio Pulses from beyond Our Galaxy

First Posted: Jul 10, 2014 11:24 AM EDT
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For years, astronomers have wondered whether fast radio bursts truly had a cosmic origin and now, they have their answer. The Arecibo telescope has detected a brief, mysterious radio pulse that seems to have come from far beyond our galaxy.

This is actually the first time a so-called "fast radio burst" has been detected using an instrument other than the Parkes radio telescope in Australia. Because other instruments had failed to detect these signals until now, scientists at first thought that the Parkes radio telescope might be picking up signals originating from sources on or near Earth.

Yet this isn't the case. The strange pulse was detected on Nov. 2, 2012. While fast radio bursts last just a few thousandths of a second and have rarely been detected, this particular burst confirmed previous estimates that stated that these types of radio bursts occur roughly 10,000 times a day over the whole sky.

"The brightness and duration of this event, and the inferred rate at which these bursts occur, are all consistent with the properties of the bursts previously detected by the Parkes telescope in Australia," said Laura Spitler, lead author of the new paper, in a news release.

These bursts appear to be coming from beyond the Milky Way based on measurement of an effect known as plasma dispersion. Yet what might be causing them still remains a mystery. It's possible that they could come from a range of exotic astrophysical objects, such as evaporating black holes, mergers of neutron stars or flares from magnetars.

Currently, scientists plan to detect more radio bursts using radio telescopes that can observe broad swaths of the sky. This could tell researchers a little bit more about these bursts and what might be producing them deep within space.

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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