Fast radio bursts (FRBs) from a distant galaxy could solve a pair of mysteries about the universe, astronomers report. The object responsible for the energetic event sits roughly six billion years away from our home planet.
Similar events have been seen before by astronomers, but this is the first time skywatchers have been able to accurately trace such a burst to its source. The discovery, recorded in 2015, also appears to confirm theoretical predictions of the distribution of matter throughout the visible universe.
Once the FRB was detected on April 18, astronomers around the globe turned their instruments to study the distant outburst. The event was carefully scrutinized by astronomers using a variety of instruments sensitive to visible light and radio wavelengths.
Fast radio bursts have only been seen 16 times before, and they peak over just a tiny fraction of a second. Fortunately, the afterglow from this FRB was seen for six days, providing researchers with the opportunity to precisely mark the source of the burst. The cause of these events remains a mystery.
"In the past, FRBs have been found by sifting through data months or even years later. By that time it is too late to do follow up observations," said Evan Keane, project scientist at the Square Kilometre Array Organisation.
Optical observations of the galaxy in which the burst was located provided measurements of the distance to the epicenter of the event. This is the first time in history that the distance to an FRB has been recorded by astronomers. Combining the distance from Earth with measurements of the delay of the signal caused by passing through matter, scientists were able to calculate the amount of "stuff" present in intervening space. They found their result closely matched predictions made by astrophysicists.
Physicists have determined that the mass of the universe is likely comprised of just five percent normal matter, 25 percent dark matter and 70 percent dark energy. However, all the visible objects seen in the sky make up only about half of that small predicted amount of matter. This newly-recorded FRB reveals the expected amount of missing matter in the visible universe.
Analysis of the FRB and what this event can tell us about the nature of the universe around us was published in the journal Nature.