Astronomers in Western Australia have detected the most distant burst of fast radio waves ever discovered – eight billion light-years from Earth.
The cosmic blast lasted less than a millisecond but it released the equivalent of the sun’s total emission over 30 years and could be the key to weighing the Universe’s missing matter.
Astrophysicist Elaine Sadler said the burst was discovered in a distant galaxy that was “quite different from the other galaxies where fast radio bursts had been detected”.
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“We think we may be seeing the collision and merger of two galaxies rather than just a single galaxy,” she said.
Professor Sadler said collisions of this kind were more common in the distant and early universe than they are today.
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“Even though this galaxy is billions of light years away, measurements with a range of telescopes have allowed us to measure its size and mass as well as the typical age and chemical composition of its constituent stars,” she said.
“This information is helpful in trying to pin down the physical mechanism that produces such highly energetic magnetic flares, represented by the (bursts).”
The burst named FRB 20220610A was discovered in June last year, smashing the research team’s previous distance record by 50 percent.
This artist’s impression (not to scale) illustrates the path of the fast radio burst FRB 20220610A, from the distant galaxy where it originated all the way to Earth. Credit: Supplied/ESO/ M.Kornmesser
Astronomer Stuart Ryder said the team initially used CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope, 350 km northeast of Geraldton, to determine where the burst came from.
“Then we used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to search for the source galaxy,” he said.
“We found it to be older and further away than any other fast radio burst source found to date and likely within a small group of merging galaxies.”
The discovery confirms that fast radio bursts can be used to measure the missing matter between galaxies, providing a new way to weigh the universe.
Current methods of estimating the mass of the Universe are giving conflicting answers and challenging the standard model of cosmology.
Astronomer Ryan Shannon said that if the amount of normal matter or atoms in the Universe was counted it would be found that half was missing, but the fast radio bursts would help researchers detect them.
“We think that the missing matter is hiding in the space between galaxies, but it may just be so hot and diffuse that it’s impossible to see using normal techniques,” he said.
“Even in space that is nearly perfectly empty they can see all the electrons, and that allows us to measure how much stuff is between the galaxies.”
About 50 fast radio bursts have been pinpointed to date but scientists don’t know what causes the massive bursts of energy.
The international research team that made the discovery included scientists from the University of Sydney, Swinburne University of Technology and Macquarie University.
The study was published in the Science journal on Friday.
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