The millisecond-long flashes of light have baffled scientists.
An international team of astronomers have discovered a series of fast radio bursts (FRB) using the CHIME telescope, located at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, Canada.
140 incidents of FRBs have been seen since 2007, appearing as millisecond-long flashes of light.
"The thing about FRBs is that they are really hard to catch," said Kiyoshi Masui, assistant professor of physics at MIT and member of the university's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. "You have to have your radio telescope pointed at just the right place at just the right time and you can't predict where or when that will be."
Prior to 2007, the technology wasn't able to capture the phenomenon, but telescopes have become more sophisticated as time has gone on. Recently, the stationary radio telescope Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment detected 535 new fast radio bursts between 2018 and 2019.
CHIME works differently from a lot of other telescopes. The four radio antennas remain stationary in order to capture incoming radio signals by using a correlator.
"Digital signal processing is what makes CHIME able to reconstruct and 'look' in thousands of directions simultaneously," Masui said. "That's what helps us detect FRBs a thousand times more often than a traditional telescope."
While most of the fast radio bursts occurred just once, 61 of them were repeating fast radio bursts from 18 sources. It is hoped that the repeated signals will allow scientists to trace the signals back to the source. A study of the FRBs presented this past Wednesday at the 238th American Astronomical Society Meeting, which was presented virtually.
"With all these sources, we can really start getting a picture of what FRBs look like as a whole, what astrophysics might be driving these events, and how they can be used to study the universe going forward," said Kaitlyn Shin, CHIME member and a graduate student in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Physics, in a statement.
As the radio signals travel to us from deep space, they encounter gas clouds which can distort the signal and change the trajectory. This could allow scientists to gain insight into the conditions of the universe around us.
"This carries a record within it of the structure of the universe that it has traveled through on its way to get from the source to us," Masui said. "Because of this, we think that they are going to be the ultimate tool for studying the universe."
With enough fast radio bursts, it may be possible to map out the large-scale structure of the universe.
"These large structures make up the filaments of the cosmic web," said Alex Josephy, a doctoral student in physics at McGill University in Canada. "With the FRB catalog, we have detected this correlation between FRBs and large-scale structure. This is really, really exciting and ushers in a new era of (fast radio burst) cosmology."