Energy burst sparks cosmic inquest
A mysterious burst of energy has baffled scientists.
(Computer visualisation)

Astronomers at Swinburne University and West Virginia University (WVU) have identified a new mysterious burst of radio energy with the race now on to find more, paving the way for a new field of astronomy to emerge – similar to that achieved when the US military revealed the existence of gamma ray bursts in the 1970’s.

The unexpected discovery was made using observations taken at the CSIRO's radio telescope at Parkes in New South Wales. WVU’s Assistant Professor Duncan Lorimer led the research team which included Swinburne’s Professor Matthew Bailes.

“What we found was a new cosmic occurrence never seen before which makes it a bit more exciting than your average astronomy finding,” Bailes said. “On the basis of our results we estimate that hundreds of similar overwhelming bursts of radio energy should occur over the sky each day, and the race is now on to identify others and find out more about them.”

The discovery was made by chance in February this year when WVU undergraduate student David Narkevic re-analysed data from observations of rotating pulsars made six years ago at the Parkes radio telescope and found the mysterious occurrence, or radio hyperburst as some astronomers are now referring to it, present in three of the beams.

“It was sitting there just booming in - it was very, very bright,” Bailes said.

The radio hyperburst is located millions of light years away and is believed to have originated from a source less than 1500 kilometres in size, lasting for five milliseconds. According to Lorimer the burst of radio waves was strong by astronomical standards.

“The burst appears to have originated from the distant Universe and may have been produced by an exotic event such as the collision of two neutron stars or the last gasp of a black hole as it evaporates completely,” Lorimer said.

As Bailes explained nobody thought that a burst of radio energy of such magnitude could be detected so far away. “Normally the kind of cosmic activity we’re looking for at this distance would be very faint but this was so bright that it saturated the equipment.

“In our own galaxy there are stars that give off bursts of radio energy that appear as bright because they are so close but this one appears to be some imponderable distance across the universe which makes it all the more puzzling because we don’t know what exactly caused it.”

As only a fraction of the sky can be observed at anyone space time using radio telescopes Bailes believes it is possible that radio hyperbursts could be coming in undetected all the time which would open up a new exciting field of astronomy similar to the discovery of gamma ray bursts over 30 years ago.

“There was an interesting class of cosmic activity, now known as the gamma ray bursts, revealed by the military in the 1970’s. They became a new field of astronomy and occupied thousands of scientists for over tens of years trying to identify their characteristics until it was revealed they were very massive exploding stars, with their bursts associated with the creation of the black holes. This mysterious occurrence might be something similar and could trigger a new area of cosmic study.”

Bailes and his team are currently putting data from other surveys through Swinburne’s supercomputer to try and detect more radio hyperbursts. Supercomputer upgrades earmarked for completion next year will assist the astronomers, along with the award of more time at the Parkes telescope.

Two new radio telescopes currently being planned for Western Australia are also expected to help in the quest.

The research was published in the September 27 issue of the online journal Science Express.

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.