Another 20 fast radio bursts (FRBs) have been observed by astronomers from Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.

The astrophysical mysteries—brief, bright flashes of radio waves that last a few milliseconds—are thought to originate from distant galaxies.

Their source, however, remains unclear.

For now.

FRBs, like the ones detailed in a new paper published by the journal Nature, have the potential to help scientists understand the structure of matter in the universe.

“The key property of the bursts that could turn them into a valuable tool is their dispersion,” according to study co-author Ryan Shannon, a postdoctoral fellow at Swinburne.

A fast radio burst leaves a distant galaxy and travels to Earth over billions of years, occasionally passing through a cloud of gas during its journey. Each time hot gas (or plasma) is encountered, the different wavelengths that make up a burst are slowed by different amounts.

Short (purple) radio waves, for example, arrive at a terrestrial telescope before long (red) ones.

This, Shannon explained, is called dispersion.

“The amount of dispersion tells us how much matter the bursts have travelled through,” he said. “And until now it has been unclear where that matter is.”

Swinburne’s data, collected using the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope, points to the cosmic web—the area between star systems.

“It also says that bursts are coming from vast distances—from galaxies halfway across the universe,” Shannon wrote, adding that none of the FRBs repeated.

“This makes the bursts different than the best-studied, known as FRB 121102—aptly called ‘the repeater’—from which hundreds of pulses have been detected,” he added.

Moving forward, the team hopes to tie bursts to host galaxies and accurately measure their distances, eventually making a 3D map of the cosmic web.

This has been a banner year for fast radio bursts.

Australia’s Parkes Observatory in March reported three, including one (FRB 180309) with the highest signal-to-noise radio to date. And this summer’s FRB 180725A marks the first detection of a blast under 700 megahertz—as low as 580 MHz.

Last month, researchers used machine learning to discover 72 new fast radio bursts from a mysterious source 3 billion light years from Earth.

While we’ve not yet met our alien neighbors, there is plenty of evidence of Earth analogues beyond our Milky Way. Check out these signs that aliens may already have made contact with us. And stay up to date on all things extraterrestrial here.



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