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Cosmic Radio Burst Captured in Real Time: Here's Why It's Significant

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Astronomers describe cosmic radio bursts as among the biggest mysteries in the universe. The phenomena, also known as fast radio bursts (FRBs), are transient celestial radio pulse that last only for a few milliseconds.

The source of these bursts remains a mystery, but with a breakthrough a group of international researchers has made, scientists may be able to learn more about this enigmatic radio wave pulses.

Only seven FRB's has been found since 2007 and all were detected retroactively. However, for the first time, an FRB was observed as it happened.

In a new study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on Jan. 19, Emily Petroff, from the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, and colleagues reported the successful observation of these cosmic outbursts in real time.

The researchers used 12 telescopes with each of these following up on the original burst observation at varying wavelengths from infrared light, X-ray waves, visible light and ultraviolet light allowing the researchers to capture the radio wave burst and make follow-up observations.

From this, they learned that the origin of the bursts came from up to 5.5 billion years away which means that their sources are extremely powerful and could possibly be used as a cosmological tool to measure and understand the universe once FRBs are understood better.

If the bursts' source can be identified, it will help scientists calculate the density of the interstellar medium, the researchers said. The signal is dispersed like a rainbow when it passes through the free electrons between stars. The bluer or higher frequency waves hit first. A denser medium also has greater dispersion and knowing the medium's density and how it has changes can be used to test theories on how the universe has evolved.

Although the researchers were not able to find anything that could indicate the source of the burst, the observation of fast radio bursts as it happened is still significant in that it has allowed scientists to rule out some possibilities of their sources such as nearby supernovae and long gamma ray bursts.

"Follow-up conducted by 12 telescopes observing from X-ray to radio wavelengths was unable to identify a variable multiwavelength counterpart, allowing us to rule out models in which FRBs originate from nearby (z < 0.3) supernovae and long duration gamma-ray bursts," the researchers wrote.

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