Interview

An enigmatic cosmic flash

Astronomers add a piece to the puzzle of why radio telescopes keep picking up fast bursts from the universe.

The take-away

  • Fast radio bursts (FRBs) last only a few milliseconds.
  • These bright radio signals could come from extremely energetic neutron stars located in other galaxies.

Bright radio signals mysteriously flash all over the sky, but they last only a few milliseconds, which is why researchers didn’t discover them until 2007. Since then, many more of these fast radio bursts (FRBs) have been discovered. They have generally been seen as transient blips caused by cataclysmic astronomical events, but new insights from an international research team including astronomer Laura Spitler from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany tell a different story.

t15Cosmic flash article - An enigmatic cosmic flash

How do your studies change current thinking on FRBs?

The fact that the FRB we observed repeats is significant. Before this, most theories for how FRBs occur involved some sort of cataclysmic event, like two neutron stars merging or some crazy thing like a black hole evaporating. But clearly, if that were the case the source wouldn’t be able to produce another burst because it would have already merged or evaporated – so the discovery required a significant change in focus from that of our theorist colleagues.

What’s been your involvement?

I discovered the very first burst from this repeating FRB. Since then, I’ve been involved in the detailed radio follow-up, including the initial work that detected that the FRB repeated, and roughly weekly observations to monitor the source.

So what might these FRB sources be?

They could be extremely energetic neutron stars in other galaxies. We know from our own galaxy that neutron stars can produce very strong short-duration radio bursts. In any event, as much as I wish it were aliens, it’s not!

Laura Spitler, Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy