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Mysterious Radio Pulses From Billions Of Light-Years Away Can Now Be Detected In Real Time

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.

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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.’


Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are radio emissions that appear temporarily and randomly, making them not only hard to find, but also hard to study.

The mystery stems from the fact it is not known what could produce such a short and sharp burst.

This has led some to speculate they could be anything from stars colliding to artificially created messages.

Scientists searching for fast radio bursts (FRBs) that some believe may be signals sent from aliens may be happening every second. The blue points in this artist's impression of the  filamentary structure of galaxies that extends across the entire sky are signals from FRBs

The first FRB was spotted, or rather ‘heard’ by radio telescopes, back in 2001 but wasn’t discovered until 2007 when scientists were analysing archival data.

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But it was so temporary and seemingly random that it took years for astronomers to agree it wasn’t a glitch in one of the telescope’s instruments.

Researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics point out that FRBs can be used to study the structure and evolution of the universe whether or not their origin is fully understood.

A large population of faraway FRBs could act as probes of material across gigantic distances.

This intervening material blurs the signal from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the left over radiation from the Big Bang.

A careful study of this intervening material should give an improved understanding of basic cosmic constituents, such as the relative amounts of ordinary matter, dark matter and dark energy, which affect how rapidly the universe is expanding.

FRBs can also be used to trace what broke down the ‘fog’ of hydrogen atoms that pervaded the early universe into free electrons and protons, when temperatures cooled down after the Big Bang.

Source: Dailymail

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