Astronomers detect repeating fast radio burst. What's causing these FRBs?

In what is being called a 'fantastic observation, ' astronomers say they have spotted a fast radio burst that seems to repeat.

Danielle Futselaar
Arecibo Telescope and Fast Radio Bursts

Powerful explosions of radio waves known as fast radio bursts explode in the sky like a flash from a camera — a single, great release of energy. But astronomers recently spotted an FRB that looks more like a strobe light — the event released multiple bright bursts of radio waves.

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, were only discovered in 2007, and while astronomers estimate that thousands of these bursts take place every day, this is only the 18th FRB ever identified. Why haven't any of the other FRBs shown this repeat behavior?

"It's possible that so far we've only seen the brightest FRB bursts," lead author Jason W. T. Hessels, associate scientist at ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, told in an email. Hessels led a team that used the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico to locate a collection of 11 repeating bursts from the same source. "Because of Arecibo's much higher sensitivity, we can see much weaker pulses, and hence the chances of detecting repeats is higher." [The Top 10 Strangest Things in Space]

A "fantastic observation"

Every day, an estimated 10,000 FRBs flash across the sky. In their brief, millisecond-long appearance, they release as much sun as the sun emits in 10,000 years. But their short duration and unpredictable arrival makes observing them a challenge. All of the previously identified FRB's have only been single-flash events; this is the only multi-flash event ever discovered, according to a statement from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.

The largest and most sensitive radio telescope on the planet, Arecibo has about 15 times the sensitivity of the Parkes telescope in Australia, where most FRBs have been detected. Originally spotted in 2012 by a survey of the sky conducted by Arecibo, the newly-discovered, repeating burst showed no signs of activity during follow-up observations by the telescope. But a review of the archived observations of the telescope revealed an additional 10 bursts consistent with the first.

But the rapid-fire bursts aren't particularly regular, according to Hessels. In one case, which he calls a "fantastic observation," six bright pulses occur over a 15-minute period.

"We also have plenty of hour-long observations that show nothing," he said.

The source of FRBs has remained a mystery in the decade since they were first spotted. One potential cause of the terrific explosions is a cataclysmic collision between two powerful objects, which would destroy both. However, the repeating nature of the new observations suggests that at least some are born from events that preserve their sources to burst another day.

According to Hessels, the reconfiguration of the magnetic field of a magnetar could explain the explosions. When a star explodes in a supernova, it leaves behind an extremely dense core known as a neutron star. A magnetar is a super-magnetized version of this core.

"No FRB has been definitively identified as a cataclysmic event," Hessels said. A study published last week in the journal Nature claims to have tracked an FRB back to a host galaxy for the first time, but the exact source has not been confirmed.

However, Hessels cited research from last December that argued a newly discovered FRB could stem from a young neutron star shrouded in dust, saying that the findings complement his team's discovery.

In the future, the team hopes to identify the galaxy that could host the repeating FRBs. By combining thepowerful Arecibo telescope with other telescopes in Europe, they hope to have enough precision to more accurately identify where the bursts originate. From there, highly sensitive optical or infrared data could identify the host galaxy.

The research was published online today (March 2) in the journal Nature Letters.

Follow Nola Taylor Redd on Twitter @NolaTRedd or Google+. Follow us at @SpacedotcomFacebook orGoogle+. Originally published on

Copyright 2016, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Astronomers detect repeating fast radio burst. What's causing these FRBs?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today