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Arecibo Observatory Detects Fast Radio Burst – Confirms New Class of Cosmic Sources

The discovery of a split-second burst of radio waves by scientists using the William E. Gordon Telescope at the Arecibo Observatory, facility of the National Science Foundation, in Puerto Rico provides important new evidence for mysterious pulses that appear to come from deep in outer space, far beyond our Galaxy.

The findings by an international team of astronomers led by Laura Spitler of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, are published in the July 10 online issue of The Astrophysical Journal . This discovery marks the first time that a so-called "fast radio burst" has been detected in the Northern hemisphere of the sky.

Fast Radio Burst 121102

Figure: Optical sky image of the area in the constellation Auriga where the fast radio burst FRB 121102 has been detected. The position of the burst, between the old supernova remnant S147 (left) and the star formation region IC 410 (right) is marked with a green circle. Image Credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo (

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are a new phenomenon - bright flashes of radio waves that last only a few thousandths of a second and appear never to repeat at the same location. Scientists using the Parkes Observatory in Australia detected the first such events, but the lack of any similar findings by other facilities led to some concern that this phenomenon might not be extra-terrestrial. The discovery at Arecibo, using the world's largest radio reflector, is the first detection of an FRB using an instrument other than the Parkes telescope. "This discovery supports the view that these bright radio transients originate from outside the solar system," said Fernando Camilo, Arecibo Observatory's Director of Astronomy. "We don't yet know what they are - it appears that they might originate in far-away galaxies, in extremely violent events like the collision of stars - but they could also arise from as yet unexplored phenomena closer to home, in our own Milky Way. Whatever they are, these bursts open a new window onto a very dynamic universe", according to Camilo.

The unusual pulse was recorded on November 2, 2012, but was identified only much later following detailed analysis of the data. The position of the radio burst is in the direction of the constellation Auriga in the Northern sky. It was detected at many radio frequencies around 1400 megaHertz, and arrived at the Earth slightly earlier at higher frequencies compared to lower frequencies. This delay suggests that it traveled through inter-galactic space before reaching our Galaxy and then the Earth, the scientists report.

The discovery was made as part of the Pulsar Arecibo L-Band Feed Array (PALFA) survey, which aims to find a large sample of pulsars and to discover rare objects useful for probing fundamental aspects of neutron star physics and testing theories of gravitational physics.

Efforts are now under way to detect more radio bursts using telescopes that can observe broad swaths of the sky - according to some estimates, as many as 10,000 FRBs might be going off daily over the entire sky. In order to understand their origin, the precise location of some of the bursts will have to be established. Current and future radio telescopes in the United States, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and Germany will be crucial to help solve this enigma.

Original Paper
"Fast Radio Burst Discovered in the Arecibo Pulsar ALFA Survey," by L.G. Spitler et al., The Astrophysical Journal. July 10, 2014.

Further Information
Arecibo Observatory
Pulsar Arecibo L-Band Feed Array survey (PALFA)
CSIRO Radio Observatory

The data were processed on the ATLAS cluster of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute), Hannover, Germany.

This research was supported by grants from the European Research Council, the US National Science Foundation, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Fonds de recherche du Québec - Nature et technologies, and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, among others.

About Arecibo Observatory

The Arecibo Observatory is operated by SRI International in alliance with Ana G. Méndez-Universidad Metropolitana and the Universities Space Research Association, under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (AST-1100968). The Arecibo Planetary Radar program is supported by NASA's Near Earth Object Observation program.

The Arecibo Observatory is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

About USRA

Universities Space Research Association (USRA) is an independent, nonprofit research corporation where the combined efforts of in-house talent and university-based expertise merge to advance space science and technology. USRA works across disciplines including biomedicine, astrophysics, and engineering and integrates those competencies into applications ranging from fundamental research to facility management and operations. USRA engages the creativity and authoritative expertise of the research community to develop and deliver sophisticated, forward-looking solutions to Federal agencies and other customers - on schedule and within budget.