For the first time, scientists have directly traced an incredibly intense, blindingly bright burst of radio waves — known as an FRB — back to its home galaxy. Surprisingly, this impressive cosmic radio flasher has somewhat humble origins, according to three new studies detailing the findings.
FRB stands for “fast radio burst.” These flickers of light were just discovered in 2007, and although they last for just a fraction of a second, they release more energy than our entire sun will radiate in 10,000 years. Eighteen FRBs have been detected, but scientists estimate that one of these bursts occurs somewhere in the sky about once every 10 seconds.
What cosmic event could release such an intense burst of radio waves? That’s still a mystery, but narrowing down the precise location of one of these radio blasts is a big step toward cracking the case.
The new study shows that the burst, known as FRB 121102, originated about 3 billion light-years away from Earth, from inside a dwarf galaxy — a collection of stars much smaller than large galaxies like the Milky Way.
A surprising source
The fact that FRB 121102 originated from a dwarf galaxy was a bit unexpected, said Cees Bassa, an astronomer at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) and a co-author of one of the three new studies.
“We were not sure what to expect, but I think the whole team was surprised to see that our exotic source is hosted by a very puny and faint galaxy,” Bassa said in a statement from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany (where some of the co-authors are based).
The surprising finding could provide clues about the source of these radio bursts.
“One would generally expect most FRBs to come from large galaxies which have the largest numbers of stars and neutron stars,” study co-author Shriharsh Tendulkar said in a statement from McGill University in Montreal, where he is a postdoctoral researcher. “This dwarf galaxy has fewer stars but is forming stars at a high rate, which may suggest that FRBs are linked to young neutron stars.”