Humanity has made significant progress understanding the cosmos in recent decades thanks to amazing instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope. There are still some phenomena that defy explanation, though. For example, fast radio bursts. Astronomers only noticed these mysterious signals in 2007, and their unpredictable nature makes it difficult to gather data. Astronomers are still watching, and the 64-meter Parkes Observatory in Australia reports it has observed the most powerful FRB yet.
The first recorded fast radio burst appeared in data from 2001, but it was not analyzed and reported until 2007. Since then, scientists have observed 33 more FRBs, but that is probably just scratching the surface. When astronomers call something “fast,” they are not kidding around. A fast radio burst lasts just a few milliseconds, so you’ll miss it entirely if your instrument isn’t pointed in the right direction. Only a single FRB has ever repeated (FRB 121102 in November 2012), so there’s usually no warning
Given the transient nature of fast radio bursts, radio telescopes around the world keep an eye out for them. The team at the Parkes Observatory managed to detect three separate FRBs in quick succession earlier this month. There was one on March 1st, another on March 9th, and the final of the trio on March 11th. The middle FRB is the most interesting because it was by far the brightest ever recorded.
The March 9th FRB was about 4.5 times brighter than the previous record-holder, with a signal-to-noise ratio of 411. It’s known as FRB 180309, which isn’t a particularly snappy name. While there were three detections in just a few days, they were not related like FRB 121102.
No one is quite sure what causes fast radio bursts, but it must be a powerful event. These phenomena can outshine millions of stars for a split second. Scientists have determined that the source of FRBs is most likely localized to a few hundred kilometers of space, but that’s as far as we’ve gotten.
Possible sources for FRBs include colliding black holes or neutron stars and signals from an alien civilization that we cannot yet decipher. The latter is definitely an outside chance, but anything is possible until we gather more data. More super-bright FRBs like FRB 180309 could help scientists collect the necessary data to form a theory. The true mechanism could also be something we’ve never fathomed — and might not understand for many years to come.