Astronomers have observed a fast radio burst—an extremely short, sharp flash of radio waves from an unknown source in the universe. This burst of radio waves lasts just a few milliseconds and was first observed in 2007 when astronomers were going through archival data from the Parkes Radio Telescope in Eastern Australia. Since then several similar bursts have been found in records, but never seen in real time until now.
An Australian team of astronomers developed a technique so they could watch the bursts in action. They recently observed the first “live” burst, although the source of the burst was actually up to 5.5 billion light years from Earth. Twelve other telescopes around the world were then alerted to observe the burst on additional wavelengths including infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, and X-ray waves. The combined information gave astrophysicists enough evidence to conclude that the mysterious radio burst was not caused by a number of astronomical phenomena, but they are still searching for the cause.
One clue is the polarization of the light—the direction in which electromagnetic wave oscillated. The Parkes team observed that the light was 20 percent circularly polarized, which suggests that there is a magnetic field nearby.
The theories are now that the radio wave burst might be linked to a very compact type of object – such as neutron stars or black holes and the bursts could be connected to collisions or ‘star quakes.’ Now we know more about what we should be looking for.