Cosmic radio burst offers path to weigh the Universe

In an article published in the latest issue of Science, Dr. Stuart Ryder from Macquarie University and Associate Professor Ryan Shannon from Swinburne University of Technology, leading a global team, have unveiled their groundbreaking discovery: the oldest and most distant fast radio burst ever detected, dating back approximately eight billion years.

This remarkable find surpasses their previous achievement by an astounding 50%. It solidifies the notion that fast radio bursts (FRBs) offer a means to quantify the elusive intergalactic matter.

The origin of this radio burst has been traced to a collection of two to three merging galaxies, lending support to existing theories regarding the origins of fast radio bursts. Furthermore, the study demonstrates that, given current telescope technology, we can only probe back approximately eight billion years in time to observe and precisely locate fast radio bursts.

It was on June 10, 2022, when the ASKAP radio telescope by CSIRO, situated on the land of the Wajarri Yamaji people, played a pivotal role in capturing a fast radio burst. This burst originated from a cosmic event that unleashed, in a mere fraction of a second, an energy output equivalent to the Sun’s total emissions over a span of 30 years.

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“Using ASKAP’s array of dishes, we were able to determine precisely where the burst came from,” says Dr Ryder, the first author on the paper. “Then we used the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile to search for the source galaxy, finding it to be older and further away than any other FRB source found to date, and likely within a small group of merging galaxies.”

Designated as FRB 20220610A, this particular fast radio burst has once again underscored the feasibility of utilizing data from FRBs to assess the mass of the Universe. The groundwork for this approach was initially laid by the late Australian astronomer, Jean-Pierre ‘J-P’ Macquart, as articulated in his 2020 publication in the journal Nature.

“J-P showed that the further away a fast radio burst is, the more diffuse gas it reveals between the galaxies,” says Dr Ryder. “This is now known as the Macquart relation. Some recent fast radio bursts appeared to break this relationship. Our measurements confirm the Macquart relation holds out to beyond half the known Universe.”

Approximately 50 fast radio bursts (FRBs) have been precisely located thus far, with nearly half of them identified using ASKAP. The researchers propose that we have the potential to discover thousands more of these cosmic phenomena spanning the celestial expanse, and even at more distant locations.

“While we still don’t know what causes these massive bursts of energy, the paper confirms that fast radio bursts are common events in the cosmos and that we will be able to use them to detect matter between galaxies, and better understand the structure of the Universe,” says Associate Professor Shannon.

Presently, ASKAP stands as the foremost radio telescope for the detection and pinpointing of FRBs. The forthcoming international SKA telescopes, currently in the construction phase in Western Australia and South Africa, will undoubtedly surpass these capabilities, enabling astronomers to identify even more ancient and far-off FRBs.


Header Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is an award winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education and the BCA Medal of Honour.

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