A huge, short burst of radio waves tearing through space has been caught in real time for the first time ever—and it could help scientists work out where these mysterious cosmic bursts come from. Until now, we only knew of these bursts from historical data.

A team of scientists from Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, has identified the first ever fast radio burst, sometimes known as a blitzar, as it happened. These bursts last around one millisecond and give off as much energy as the sun does in a million years. Zing.

Mysterious origins

This blitzar's origin is a mystery, but whatever caused it "must be huge, cataclysmic and up to 5.5 billion light years away," according to researcher Emily Petroff when she spoke to New Scientist. It could be a flare from a giant magnetized neutron star, the collapse of an oversized neutron star, or something else altogether.


While nine blitzars have been spotted since they were first discovered in 2007, they were all identified in existing data—either weeks or years old. This new observation is the first time one has been caught in the act. The recordings were made at the Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia. When the observation was made, other telescopes all over the world focussed in on the spot where the blitzar was first seen—near the constellation Aquarius. None of observed any afterglow.

The data we do have, though, reveals that the radiation produced by the blitzar is circularly, not linearly, polaris—which means the waves vibrate in two planes as opposed to one. Which is great! Though nobody knows what on Earth it might mean just yet. Best keep looking for some more, then. [arxiv.org via New Scientist]


Image by Howard Ignatius