An “entirely new” astronomical phenomenon has been announced this week by scientists analysing radio telescope data. With only one observation though no one has any real idea what it is or what it means. Researchers discovered a powerful burst of radio waves when going over some old data. And despite their best efforts they haven’t been able to find anything similar (press release 1, press release 2).
“Their first response was, ‘Ooo, can we observe this event again?’ They spent several days staring in the same direction but it didn’t deign to reappear,” said John Reynolds, an astronomer contacted by the team who discovered the pulse (The Australian). Despite this, the researchers say in their paper in Science that “hundreds of similar events could occur every day and act as insightful cosmological probes”.
“We think there are probably many of these bursts every day that we are just not detecting because we don’t have the right kind of surveys of the sky looking for them,” study author Maura McLaughlin of West Virginia University told Reuters. “We think it has got to be some sort of catastrophic event happening in another galaxy – like two stars colliding and merging or maybe a black hole. Something kind of exotic.”
Astrophysicist Valerie Connaughton, from the University of Alabama, though cautions that no radio burst have ever been associated with these events (Science Now). Over at Space.com there is the suggestion that if these bursts are numerous they could help filter data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, and thus help detect the gravity waves predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity. The story is also covered by Sky and Telescope.
Image: Visible-light (negative greyscale) and radio (contours) image of Small Magellanic Cloud and area where burst originated / Lorimer et al, NRAO/AUI/NSF