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The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) radio telescope

Andre Renard/CHIME Collaboration

Every day, thousands of mysterious radio signals flash across the universe, astronomers have found.

First discovered in 2007, these fast radio bursts (FRBs) are extremely bright flashes of radio waves that last just milliseconds and seem to occur across the universe. We still don’t know what causes them, but ideas include neutron stars with particularly strong magnetic fields, known as magnetars, or perhaps binary stars interacting in unusual ways.

Until 2018, FRBs had been notoriously tricky to find because of their short duration, meaning there were only 140 on record. But the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) telescope came online that year, and now researchers working on it have announced a new catalogue of many more FRBs.

“In one year, we have detected 535 FRBs,” says Mohit Bhardwaj at McGill University in Canada, a member of the CHIME team, who presented the work at a virtual meeting of the American Astronomical Society on 9 June. “We have almost quadrupled the amount of FRBs that were previously known.”

The discoveries were made between July 2018 and July 2019, with 18 of the 535 bursts also found to be repeating signals. CHIME’s view sweeps across the entire sky every day to hunt for FRBs, but complex analysis is needed to identify them among the other noise in the instrument, with about 7 terabits of data produced every second.

The catalogue allowed the team to estimate that there should be 9000 FRBs visible every day in the sky. CHIME’s narrow view only allows it to see a fraction of these at a time.

With the catalogue, researchers can now probe FRBs like never before, including investigating their origin and using them to map the distribution of matter in the universe, as the radio waves are distorted when they pass through dust and gas in their lengthy journeys to our planet.


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