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Astronomers around the world are using our radio telescopes to uncover what causes 'fast radio bursts'.

The challenge

A cosmic mystery

One of the greatest mysteries currently occupying astronomers is what causes fast radio bursts. These massive bursts of energy – each equivalent to more energy than our Sun emits in 80 years – last just milliseconds.

The bursts were first discovered in 2007 in archival data collected by our Parkes radio telescope. International research teams are now racing to uncover what causes these brief and powerful events.

Our response

Locating the origin of bursts

An Australian-led team including astronomers from CSIRO, Swinburne University of Technology and the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research has used our ASKAP radio telescope to locate the origin of six bursts to their home galaxies.

Artist’s impression of CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope finding a fast radio burst and determining its precise location. The KECK, VLT and Gemini South optical telescopes joined ASKAP with follow-up observations to image the host galaxy. Credit: CSIRO/Dr Andrew Howells.

To aid this search our engineers developed a customised instrument that can record the telescope’s data stream when a burst is detected. This can be used to determine the burst’s origin with high precision.

Having pinpointed the location of the bursts, the research team used instruments including our Australia Telescope Compact Array and other international telescopes to zoom in on the precise locations of the bursts.

This revealed that bursts came from the outskirts of their home galaxies, ruling out supermassive black holes and several more extreme theories to explain their origins.

For their work so far in locating the home galaxies of several fast radio bursts, our research team was awarded the 2020 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize for the best science paper of the year by the prestigious publication, Science.

The results

Building a catalogue

We don't yet know what causes fast radio bursts. They key to solving this mystery rests with our ability to detect and study a large number of bursts, and determine their exact location, using complementary facilities in Australia and around the world.

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