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Student shows cosmic signals are the 'real deal'

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 April 2017 10:12
Published on Wednesday, 05 April 2017 10:04

A PhD student at the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) in Australia has settled one of astronomy's burning questions with a radio telescope near Canberra that she helped refurbish.

Peter Battye - Manisha Caleb - smallManisha Caleb. Credit: Peter Battye, Real Image Photography. Click for a full size imageManisha Caleb, who is enrolled at the Australian National University and works at Swinburne University, has confirmed that mystery bursts of radio waves astronomers have hunted for ten years really do come from outer space. Her work appears in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Caleb teamed up with her Swinburne colleagues to detect three of the 'fast radio bursts' with the University of Sydney's Molonglo radio telescope 40 km from Canberra.

The bursts came from the direction of the constellations Puppis and Hydra.

"Because of the telescope's characteristics, we're 100 per cent sure the bursts came from space," Caleb said.

Astronomers worldwide will be relieved. In 2015 other mysterious radio signals were tracked down to a microwave oven at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's Parkes radio telescope.

The researchers' certainty stems from the nature of the Molonglo telescope.

Until now all of the 20-odd 'fast radio bursts' known had been found with large dishes, such as the Parkes telescope. But unlike most dishes, Molonglo can see several spots or 'beams' on the sky at once.

"Local radio interference shows up in several of Molonglo's beams. Cosmic signals never show up in more than three. That's how we knew these signals were cosmic," said one of Caleb's co-supervisors, Dr Chris Flynn of Swinburne University.

Flynn and Caleb have been part of a Swinburne-led team that has overhauled the telescope in the last two years, rebuilding it into a machine for hunting the mystery signals.

Around the world other teams too are racing to find more bursts and identify their origins.

Mongolo FRB 2 smallArtist’s impression shows three bright red flashes depicting fast radio bursts far beyond the Milky Way, appearing in the constellations Puppis and Hydra. Credit: James Josephides / Mike Dalley. Click for a full size imageOne of the new Molonglo bursts, FRB 160410, might be the closest one ever detected.

"We want to watch this one in particular to see if it repeats," said Swinburne's Professor Matthew Bailes, who also supervises Caleb.

"If it did, that would give us a better chance to pin down its location and link it to a galaxy," he said.

"Understanding where the bursts come from is the key to understanding what makes them."

The Molonglo telescope is blessed with a huge collecting area (18,000 square metres) and a large field of view (eight square degrees on the sky), which makes it excellent for hunting for fast radio bursts.

Over the next two years the telescope will be improved even more, gaining the ability to localise bursts to within five arcseconds on the sky. (An arcsecond is about the width of a human hair seen ten metres away.)

"Only one burst has ever been localised well enough to link it to a specific galaxy," Caleb said.

"We expect Molonglo will do this for many more bursts."


Media contact

Helen Sim (CAASTRO)
Tel: +61 419 635 905
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Science contacts

Ms Manisha Caleb
ANU, Swinburne University, CAASTRO
Tel: +61 402 145 680
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Dr Chris Flynn
Swinburne University, CAASTRO
Tel: +61 451 956 920
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Prof Matthew Bailes
Swinburne University and ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery
Tel: +61 3 9214 8782
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Further information

The new work appears in "The first interferometric detections of Fast Radio Bursts", M. Caleb, C. Flynn, M. Bailes, E.D. Barr, T. Bateman, S. Bhandari, D. Campbell-Wilson, W. Farah, A.J. Green, R.W. Hunstead, A. Jameson, F. Jankowski, E.F. Keane, A. Parthasarathy, V. Ravi, P.A. Rosado, W. van Straten, and V. Venkatraman Krishnan, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Oxford University Press, in press.


Notes for editors

The ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) is a collaboration between The University of Sydney, The Australian National University, The University of Melbourne, Swinburne University of Technology, The University of Queensland, The University of Western Australia and Curtin University, the last two participating together as the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR). CAASTRO is funded under the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence program, with additional funding from the seven participating universities and from the NSW State Government's Science Leveraging Fund.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 4,000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

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