Radio burst from beyond Milky Way detected in real time

Fleeting extragalactic signal probably not caused by exploding star

Parkes telescope in Australia

LOOKING UP  The Parkes telescope in Australia, where all but one fast radio burst has been found, is now equipped with electronics to allow real-time detection of these fleeting signals.

CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

For the first time, astronomers have captured an elusive burst of radio waves from beyond the Milky Way as it was happening. The Australian Parkes radio telescope automatically detected one of these fast radio bursts within 10 seconds of its arrival and alerted other telescopes. Within hours, 12 telescopes spanning the electromagnetic spectrum tried to catch a glimpse of what caused the burst — and found nothing, researchers report online December 1 at

The burst is the ninth reported since 2007 (SN: 8/9/14, p. 22). Emily Petroff, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University of Technology in Hawthorn, Australia, and colleagues calculate that this burst originated no farther than 6 billion light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. Since the other observatories did not detect a fading afterglow at any wavelength of light, the researchers say that a stellar explosion, such as a supernova or long-lasting gamma ray burst, cannot be the culprit.

All previous bursts were found months or years after their arrival. Real-time detection is crucial to understanding the cause of the bursts, which last for only a few milliseconds. Solving the mystery will likely also require simultaneous detections at several radio dishes to better pinpoint where on the sky the signals are coming from.

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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