Fast radio bursts, mysterious high-energy astrophysical phenoma that have defied explanation, have been blamed on everything from aliens to microwave ovens. They are incredibly strong signals that have puzzling mathematical regularity, and scientists believe they are coming from deep space. Now, their source has finally been confirmed, reports Science News.
Or at least, the source of one of the fast radio bursts has been confirmed: a galaxy roughly 6 billion light-years away in the Canis Major constellation. That's a long way away, proving once and for all that these perplexing radio signals are not coming from within our own galaxy.
The bursts have been difficult to pinpoint, in part because they last only a few milliseconds but also because only 17 of them have ever been detected. But a burst captured by the Parkes radio telescope in Australia in April of 2015, was followed by a faint radio glow that slowly faded over the course of six days. This additional glow offered enough information for scientists to trace the burst back to its origin, a distant elliptical galaxy.
Scientists suspect that the burst might have been generated from a merging pair of neutron stars, though this is just one hypothesis. It's also possible that fast radio bursts come in several different varieties and have different sources. That this particular burst's galaxy of origin has been pinpointed does not mean that the origin of the phenomenon itself has been solved. There's much still to learn about these peculiar signals.
Interestingly, the search for this burst's source might also have solved another riddle of the universe: the so-called "missing matter" problem. There should be much more matter in our universe than scientists have been able to detect so far, at least according to current models of the universe. This fast radio burst showed a lot of "wear and tear," however — and that's evidence that it must have bumped into lots of matter during its journey through the space between galaxies.
This could be the missing matter that scientists have been looking for, invisible ions hidden in the darkness of intergalactic space.
It's an exciting find, proof that there's a lot of good science that can come from studying these mystifying signals, whether they lead to aliens, merging neutron stars or something else entirely.