In a first, a team of scientists has tracked down the location of a fast radio burst (FRB), confirming that these short but spectacular flashes of radio waves originate in the distant universe.
The breakthrough was made using the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) radio telescopes in eastern Australia and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s Subaru telescope in Hawaii.
FRBs emit as much energy in one millisecond as the Sun emits in 10,000 years but the physical phenomenon that causes them is unknown.
“Our discovery opens the way to working out what makes these bursts,” said Simon Johnston, head of astrophysics at CSIRO, in paper published in the journal Nature.
Only 16 bursts have ever been found but astronomers estimate that they might occur 10,000 times a day across the entire sky.
The new discovery records a burst from a host galaxy around six billion light-years away.
Importantly, it also confirms that FRBs can be used to find matter in the universe that had “gone missing”.
Astronomers think the contents of the universe are 70 percent dark energy, 25 percent dark matter and five percent ordinary matter.
But when they add up the matter they can see in stars, galaxies and hydrogen gas, they still only find half as much ordinary matter as should be there — the rest has not been seen directly and so has been described as ‘missing’.
Using the burst (FRB 150418) as a tool, the team were able to “weigh” the universe or at least the normal matter it contains.
“The good news is our observations and the model match — we have found the missing matter," explained Evan Keane from the SKA Organisation and lead author on the paper.
It’s the first time a fast radio burst has been used to conduct a cosmological measurement.
“In the near future, using CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) should be ideal and ASKAP will be able to start looking for FRBs this year,” the authors noted, adding that “We expect to find several a week, and really clean up.”