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New Fast Radio Burst discovery finds ‘missing matter’ in the Universe

Wednesday 24 February 2016, SKA Global Headquarters, UK – An international team of scientists led by an SKA Project Scientist has for the first time managed to identify the location of a fast radio burst using a combination of radio and optical telescopes, allowing them to confirm the current cosmological model of the distribution of matter in the Universe. The results are published in the journal Nature.

On April 18, 2015, a fast radio burst (FRB) was detected by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)’s 64-m Parkes radio telescope in Australia. An international alert was triggered to follow it up with other telescopes and within a few hours, a number of telescopes around the world were looking for the signal, including CSIRO’s Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA).

FRBs are mysterious bright radio flashes generally lasting only a few milliseconds. Their origin is still unknown, with a long list of potential phenomena associated with them. FRBs are very difficult to detect; before this discovery only 16 had been detected.

“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.” says Dr Evan Keane, Project Scientist at the Square Kilometre Array Organisation and the lead scientist behind the study. To remedy this, the team developed their own observing system at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia to detect FRBs within seconds, and to immediately alert other telescopes, when there is still time to search for more evidence in the aftermath of the initial flash.

Image 1

Fig 1. This image shows the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope on the left. On the right are successive zoom-ins in on the area where the signal came from (cyan circular region). The image at the bottom right shows the Subaru image of the FRB galaxy, with the superimposed elliptical regions showing the location of the fading 6-day afterglow seen with ATCA. Image Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).

Thanks to the ATCA’s six 22-m dishes and their combined resolution, the team was able to pinpoint the location of the signal with much greater accuracy than has been possible in the past and detected a radio afterglow that lasted for around 6 days before fading away. This afterglow enabled them to pinpoint the location of the FRB about 1000 times more precisely than for previous events (see Fig. 1).

The team then used the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ)’s 8.2-m Subaru optical telescope in Hawaii to look at where the signal came from, and identified an elliptical galaxy some 6 billion light years away. “It’s the first time we’ve been able to identify the host galaxy of an FRB” added Dr Keane. The optical observation also gave them the redshift measurement (the speed at which the galaxy is moving away from us due to the accelerated expansion of the Universe), the first time a distance has been determined for an FRB.

FRBs show a frequency-dependent dispersion (see Fig. 2), a delay in the radio signal caused by how much material it has gone through. “Until now, the dispersion measure is all we had. By also having a distance we can now measure how dense the material is between the point of origin and Earth, and compare that with the current model of the distribution of matter in the Universe” explains Dr Simon Johnston, co-author of the study, from CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division. “Essentially this lets us weigh the Universe, or at least the normal matter it contains.”

Keane_fig1

Fig 2. This image shows the increased delay in the arrival time of the Fast Radio Burst as a function of the frequency. The delay in the signal is caused by the material it goes through between its point of origin and Earth. Image Credit: E. F. Keane (SKAO).

In the current model, the Universe is believed to be made of 70% dark energy, 25% dark matter and 5% ‘ordinary’ matter, the matter that makes everything we see. However, through observations of stars, galaxies and hydrogen, astronomers have only been able to account for about half of the ordinary matter, the rest could not be seen directly and so has been referred to as ‘missing’.

“The good news is our observations and the model match, we have found the missing matter” explained Dr Keane. “It’s the first time a fast radio burst has been used to conduct a cosmological measurement.”

Looking forward, the Square Kilometre Array, with its extreme sensitivity, resolution and wide field of view is expected to be able to detect hundreds of FRBs and to pinpoint their host galaxies. A much larger sample will enable precision measurements of cosmological parameters such as the distribution of matter in the Universe, and provide a refined understanding of dark energy.

Credit: John Rowe Animation (CASS/SKAO/Swinburne/MPIfR/INAF)

About the SKA

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, led by SKA Organisation. The SKA will conduct transformational science to improve our understanding of the Universe and the laws of fundamental physics, monitoring the sky in unprecedented detail and mapping it hundreds of times faster than any current facility.

The SKA is not a single telescope, but a collection of telescopes or instruments, called an array, to be spread over long distances. The SKA is to be constructed in two phases: Phase 1 (called SKA1) in South Africa and Australia; Phase 2 (called SKA2) expanding into other African countries, with the component in Australia also being expanded.

Already supported by 10 member countries – Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom – SKA Organisation has brought together some of the world’s finest scientists, engineers and policy makers and more than 100 companies and research institutions across 20 countries in the design and development of the telescope. Construction of the SKA is set to start in 2018, with early science observations in 2020.

Contact

Dr Evan Keane
SKA Organisation Project Scientist
Email: e.keane@skatelescope.org
Mobile: +44 7469 150 545
Landline: +44 161 306 9658

Mathieu Isidro
SKA Organisation Deputy Communications Manager
Email: m.isidro@skatelescope.org
Mobile: +44 7824 016 126
Landline: +44 161 306 9681

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