An Australian-led international team of astronomers has been able to pinpoint the precise location of a one-off burst of cosmic radio waves for the first time, according to a study published on Friday.
The powerful burst, which occurred in a Milky Way-sized galaxy about 3.6 billion light-years away, was discovered through the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder radio telescope in Western Australia.
“This is the big breakthrough that the field has been waiting for since astronomers discovered fast radio bursts in 2007,” said the study's lead author, Keith Bannister.
In the 12 years since then, a global hunt has netted 85 of these bursts, according to a press release from CSIRO. Most have been one-offs, but a small fraction of them are known as "repeaters" recurring in the same location.
Scientists were able to find the location of a repeater's home galaxy back in 2017, but pinpointing the origin of a one-off burst had proven to be more challenging until this new milestone.
While the cause of fast radio bursts remains unknown, the ability to determine their exact location is a big leap towards solving this mystery, the team said.
According to the statement from CSIRO, ASKAP is an array of multiple dish antennas and the burst had to travel a different distance to each dish, reaching them all at a slightly different time.
"From these tiny time differences – just a fraction of a billionth of a second – we identified the burst’s home galaxy and even its exact starting point, 13,000 light-years out from the galaxy’s center in the galactic suburbs,” team member Adam Deller said.
Fast radio bursts last less than a millisecond, making it a challenge to accurately pinpoint their origin.
The research team developed new technology to freeze and save ASKAP data less than a second after a burst arrives at the telescope.
"If we were to stand on the Moon and look down at the Earth with this precision, we would be able to tell not only which city the burst came from, but which postcode – and even which city block,” Bannister said.
Thanks to this technology, scientists were able to conclude that the burst, christened FRB 180924, was generated in the galaxy known by the catchy name of DES J214425.25-405400.81.
That galaxy has been imaged through data collected from three of the world's largest optical telescopes – Keck (located in Hawaii), Gemini South and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (both in Chile).
“The burst we localized (...) comes from a massive galaxy that is forming relatively few stars," Deller explained. "This suggests that fast radio bursts can be produced in a variety of environments."
The study was published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science.