DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Over the past decade, astronomers have been seeing these weird, powerful, but very brief bursts of radio waves out in space. No one knows what's going on. But now for the first time, astronomers have been able to pinpoint where one of these bursts came from. Here's NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: OK, let's get this out of the way right at the start. We're not talking about aliens generating radio signals - at least, I'm not, and neither were the scientists I spoke with. But these fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are still fascinating because they're so darn powerful and so brief. And because they're so brief, until now, no one has seen one happen in real time. They were found by combing through data weeks or months after the actual event occurred. Catching one in the act would provide additional valuable clues about them. So Evan Keane and his colleagues set out to trap one. They piped the data from the Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia into a supercomputer, and let the supercomputer scan the data in real time. On April 18 last year, they got a hit - only the seventeenth FRB ever reported.
EVAN KEANE: I was in South Africa when it happened. And I was planning to have - you know, to sleep in. But of course, my phone started going crazy in the morning, waking me up, telling me there was an FRB.
PALCA: They had a hit. Now they had to pinpoint it. Keane had a network of telescopes standing by.
KEANE: We immediately triggered other telescopes and tell them there's an FRB over here. Can you observe it? When can you observe this?
PALCA: First, another radio telescope in Australia was able to see the radio afterglow from the FRB and narrow in on the patch of sky where the burst had come from. Then, Japanese colleagues pointed a large, optical telescope in Hawaii, called Subaru, at that spot to see what was there.
KEANE: There's only one thing there, and it's a galaxy - an elliptical galaxy.
PALCA: ...An elliptical galaxy 6 billion light-years away. Of course, it's still not possible to say what's inside the elliptical galaxy that's generating the massive pulse of radio energy. But it does help to know how far the radio waves have traveled, since that tells you something about the power needed to generate them. Keane works with something called the Square Kilometer Array Organization, a giant radio telescope still in the planning stages, that should be able to detect lots more of these FRB - maybe enough to figure out what's making them. The current research appears in the journal Nature. Joe Palca, NPR News.
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