They are called Fast Radio Bursts (FRB). Astronomers first noticed them about a decade ago. This week, astronomers are one step closer to explaining the puzzling signals.

“We now know that the energy from this particular burst passed through a dense magnetized field shortly after it formed,” says Kiyoshi Masui, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia. Masui is also the lead author of the paper published this week in Nature.

This particular FRB is called FRB 110523. Because it passed through a dense magnetized field, astronomers can narrow down its origin. Sorry sci-fi fans, no aliens for you. The origin likely sits in a star-forming nebula or what’s left over following a supernova.

FRB 110523 is just one of 16 fast radio bursts ever recorded. Scientists think there are thousands of them each day, but finding them requires meticulous analysis of mountains of data.

Data-mining software created by Masui and Jonathan Sievers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) made it easier for the scientists to discover this FRB. “Hidden within an incredibly massive dataset, we found a very peculiar signal that matched all the known characterizes of a Fast Radio Burst, but with a tantalizing extra element that we simply have never seen before,” said Jeffrey Peterson, from Carnegie Mellon and an author on the paper.

How did they know this FRB passed through a magnetic field? The signal demonstrated a phenomenon known as Faraday rotation. It’s a corkscrew-like twist radio waves acquire after passing through a powerful magnetic field.

Further analysis helped astronomers better pinpoint its origin. Before the fast radio burst collided with the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, it passed through two distinct regions of ionized gas – called screens. Analysis of these two screens helped astronomers pinpoint their relative locations. The strongest screen is close to the burst’s source and places it inside the source’s galaxy.

That combined with dense magnetized field suggests the source of this FRB is in an area with young stellar populations. A nebula, or near the galactic center. The paper’s authors also describe several phenomena that can explain what they see, “including magnetar starquakes, delayed formation of black holes after core-collapse supernovae, and pulsar’s giant pulses.”

“Taken together, these remarkable data reveal more about an FRB than we have ever seen before and give us important constraints on these mysterious events,” Masui adds in a statement.

The next step is gathering more data. Armed with data-mining software, finding other FRB’s buried in archival data should be a bit easier.

Green Bank Telescope

Green Bank Telescope

I can’t end the article without talking about one of the most interesting telescopes in the world. The Green Bank Telescope (GBT) is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. Other radio telescopes are larger, such as the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, but it’s not fully steerable like GBT.

arecibo observatory

Arecibo Observatory. Credit: NAIC – Arecibo Observatory

It’s not the telescope that will blow your mind. It’s where it sits. The Green Bank Telescope sits in the United States Radio Quiet Zone. It’s a giant rectangle area of land that is 13,000 square miles in size. The most strict area is a ten-mile radius around the telescope. Residents in this area cannot use anything that transmits wireless signals.

Want to untether yourself from your cell phone? This is the place to go. It’s also the place to go if you hate microwave dinners and Wi-Fi. Woah there. I’ll give you my microwave, but you can’t have my Netflix or my Xbox.

The video below shows how people live in this area.

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