Friday, July 5, 2013

Astronomers Puzzled by Powerful Radio Bursts

radio burst over the Parkes telescope
Artist's impression of the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope shown with a bright radio burst blazing briefly far from the Milky Way's disk (red swath at right). The Milky Way image is from a hydrogen-alpha full-sky map.
Swinburne Astronomy Productions; background: H-alpha composite survey Finkbeiner 2003

If you’ve been waiting for mysterious radio signals from space, tune in. An international team of astronomers has detected four powerful bursts that appear to come from billions of light-years away. At that distance, the radio pulses would each have put out in a few thousandths of a second the same amount of energy that the Sun would need 10,000 years to emit.

(So no, it’s not E.T.)

The bizarre signals came to light as part of the High Time Resolution Universe survey, a project using the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope in Australia to search the sky for radio blips and pulsars, the spinning-lighthouse-like stellar corpses left behind by some supernovae. Because the pulsars we detect lie in our own galaxy, astronomers mostly look near the Milky Way’s plane when hunting for these zombie stars. But when grad student Dan Thornton (University of Manchester, U.K., and CSIRO, Australia) started digging through normally “boring” data far from the galaxy’s dusty gleam, he stumbled across the four enigmatic bursts.

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Source: Sky and Telescope Magazine.

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