Scientists trace origins of mysterious fast radio bursts haunting Earth since 2007

Scientists have traced the locations of multiple mysterious fast radio bursts back to their origins with help from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The cause of these mysterious millisecond-long radio blasts in space has eluded scientists since the phenomena was discovered in 2007.

Given how quick they flare, these bursts, sometimes called FRBs, are very difficult to track and study.

An international team of astronomers was able to trace the locations of eight fast radio bursts. While the origins of three remain inconclusive, the researchers used Hubble’s deep-space imaging to pinpoint the distant galaxies where these bursts originated, including their exact locations within the galaxies.

Five of the radio bursts came from spiral galaxies. These are the most common type of galaxy across the universe, and our own Milky Way is a type of spiral galaxy.

One feature of these galaxies is that they have spiral arms where star formation occurs.

The radio bursts they traced were located along the arms of different spiral galaxies ranging between about 400 million to 9 billion light-years away.

These bursts may be brief, but each one creates more energy than our sun does over the course of an entire year.

Scientists have discovered up to a thousand such bursts since 2007, but they have only been able to trace about 15 of them. Those 15 were found to originate in distant, young and massive galaxies.

A combination of visible light, ultraviolet and near-infrared imaging helped astronomers trace the FRBs.

“This is the first high-resolution view of a population of FRBs,” said lead study author Alexandra Mannings, a graduate student in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“Most of the galaxies are massive, relatively young and still forming stars. The imaging allows us to get a better idea of the overall host galaxy properties, such as its mass and star-formation rate, as well as probe what’s happening right at the FRB position.”

The researchers were surprised to discover that the bursts originated from the spiral arms.

“We don’t know what causes FRBs, so it’s really important to use context when we have it,” said study coauthor Wen-fai Fong, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy in Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences in Illinois.

“Because spiral arms are signs of stars being born, this was a surprise, offering a major clue that FRBs must correlate with star formation.”

These findings indicate that the radio bursts originate from a type of Goldilocks median, meaning that the stars that could be involved in the creation of the bursts can’t be too young or too old.

Previously, scientists have speculated that the origin of FRBs could be due to the explosions of young stars or the mergers of neutron stars. Neutron stars are the dense cores that remain behind when stars explode. These have been known to generate gamma-ray bursts.