Scientists Track Down the Source of Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts in a Distant Galaxy

First Posted: Feb 25, 2016 08:08 AM EST

An international research team has used radio and optical telescopes to identify the precise location of a mysterious, fast radio burst (FRB) in a distant galaxy. This latest finding has allowed them to conduct a census of the universe's matter content, and confirms current cosmological models of the distribution of matter in the universe.

On April 18, 2015, a fast radio burst was detected on a radio telescope. An international alert was triggered to follow it up with other telescopes and within a few hours, a number of telescopes around the world were looking for the signal.

FRBs are mysterious bright radio flashes, generally lasting only a few milliseconds. Their origin is still unknown and are difficult to detect. In fact, before this discovery only 16 had been detected.

"In the past FRBs have been found by sifting through data months or even years later," said Evan Keane, one of the researchers, in a news release. "By that time it is too late to do follow up observations."

In this latest study, though, the researchers were able to pinpoint the location of the FRB with much greater accuracy than has been possible in the past. They also detected a radio afterglow that lasted for about 6 days before fading away. In fact, the researchers found that the signal came from an elliptical galaxy about 6 billion light years away.

"Until now, the dispersion measure is all we had. But 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," said Simon Johnston, co-author of the new study. "Essentially this lets us weight the universe, or at least the normal matter it contains."

In the current model, the universe is believed to be made of 70 percent dark energy, 25 percent dark matter, and 5 percent "ordinary" matter. With the latest observations, the researchers were able to find previously "missing" matter and confirm the model.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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