A PhD student in Australia has developed an automated system to detect, in real time, mysterious radio pulses emanating from the deep universe.
The fleeting signals known as fast radio bursts (FRBs) have baffled scientists since they were first discovered in 2007 by a team poring through archival data.
Since then, there have been numerous other instances of their detection – though what exactly causes them remains a mystery.
The latest breakthrough could be a huge leap forward for scientists’ ability to understand the nature of fast radio bursts, allowing them to be captured in detail the moment they reach Earth.
By the time fast radio bursts are picked up by instruments on our planet, they’ve traveled a very long way.
The first such signal to ever be traced to its origin galaxy – a milestone revealed earlier this summer – came from a corner of the universe roughly 3.6 billion light-years away.
‘It is fascinating to discover that a signal that traveled halfway through the universe, reaching our telescope after a journey of a few billion years, exhibits complex structure, like peaks separated by less than a millisecond,’ said Wael Farah, who developed the new system.
Farah, a PhD student at Swinburne University of Technology, trained a computer at the Molongo Radio Observatory to recognize the subtle characteristics of FRBs and differentiate them from background noise.
It’s already detected five of these bursts, including one of the most energetic observed yet, according to the team.
If a fast radio burst is picked up by the telescope, Farah’s system is designed to capture it automatically.
The machine learning technique allows the computer to ‘detect and save FRBs from amongst millions of other radio events, such as mobile phones, lightning storms, and signals from the sun and pulsars,’ says project scientist Dr Chris Flynn.
The new technique will also allow scientists to study these signals in greater detail than ever before.
This will tell us more about their structure and, hopefully, where they came from.
According to project lead Professor Matthew Bailes, the new system ‘allows us to fully exploit its high time and frequency resolution and probe FRB properties that were previously unobtainable.’