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Fast Radio Bursts

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are flashes of radio energy in the sky that last only a few thousandths of a second. They appear to originate from beyond the Milky Way Galaxy and, as such, contain prodigious amounts of energy. They were discovered in 2007 by astronomers using data gathered with the Parkes radio telescope in Australia.

Because they appear randomly over the sky and because of the relatively narrow field of view of most radio telescopes, only a couple of dozen have been observed since the initial discovery. The task of spotting them is akin to spotting fireflies in a dark forest while looking through a drinking straw.

Uncertainty remains regarding their source. The bursts could come from neutron stars as they collapse and become black holes; from evaporating black holes; from mergers of neutron stars; or from flares from stars with powerful magnetic fields called magnetars.

The quest to discover the true nature of FRBs continues on a number of fronts, including the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), an innovative radio telescope in B.C. that scans the entire northern sky once every day. Compared to a radio telescope that observes only a small patch of the sky at any time, CHIME is a powerful tool with which to discover the elusive and unpredictable FRBs.

At U of T Astro:

Recent U of T Astro research:

An artist’s impression of the CHIME telescope, detecting FRBs throughout the year. Credit: CHIME/FRB Collaboration, with artistic additions by Luka Vlajić.