Enigmatic Flashes from the Edge of the Cosmos

By Corey S. Powell | July 5, 2013 12:37 pm

They come from somewhere in the distant universe–probably some 6 billion to 11 billion light years away. They don’t last very long, only about one-thousandth of a second. They happen all the time, up to 10,000 times a day. They create intense bursts of radio emission but nothing else–no light, no x-rays, no other visible evidence. And nobody knows what they are. Until now, nobody was even sure they existed.

Radio burst map

Radio map of the sky highlights rapidly varying objects. Black dots are pulsars, the spinning remnants of dead stars. Red asterisks mark the four new mystery objects. (Credit: MPIfR/ C. Ng; Science/ D. Thornton et al.)

Astronomers are calling these enigmatic signals “fast radio bursts” or “Lorimer bursts,” after Duncan Lorimer, the researcher who detected the first one. The timing of the press releases made me momentarily suspicious–a fireworks-type story that breaks on the 4th of July?–but a quick look a the discovery paper, published today in the journal Science, quickly dispelled my cynicism. This is the real deal: a genuine new cosmic mystery.

Hints have been accumulating for a while that something weird is going on out there. Dan Thornton, a doctoral candidate in astrophysics at the University of Manchester and at Australia’s CSIRO, notes that the original Lorimer burst was reported a full six years ago. At the time, the observation attracted only minor attention, however; it was a single event that could have been many different things, including an erroneous measurement. For a young researcher like Thornton, looking to make his mark, this was a high-risk direction to explore. It also proved to be an irresistible one.

Thornton ended up collaborating with 19 colleagues around the world (in the U.S., U.K., Italy, Germany, and Australia), working for four years at the Parkes radio telescope in Australia to explore the meaning of the Lorimer burst. Rather than training the telescope on one spot for a long period of time to build up a clear signal, they performed the more complicated task of listening continuously for sudden blips of radio noise. Their findings are presented in the paper, “A Population of Fast Radio Bursts at Cosmological Distances,” in the latest issue of Science.

At first glance, the payoff from all that labor looks modest: Thornton and his colleagues have detected only four new fast radio bursts. But that sample is large enough, and sufficiently well observed, to draw some sweeping conclusions.

First, the Parkes survey definitively establishes that the bursts are real. Four very specific observations like this do not happen by chance.

Second, this sample is large enough to say something meaningful about how common the bursts are. Thornton and company were examining only minuscule patches of sky. Assuming that the bursts occur randomly in all directions, they must be going off all the time, unnoticed, in many other locations. To a person with radio vision, the sky would light up several times a minute with strobe-like flashes originating from places unknown.

The Parkes radio telescope is superimposed in front of a radio-eye view of the night sky. The bright dot indicates one of the newfound fast radio bursts. (Credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions/ CSIRO/ Harvard)

Finally, the source of those flashes is not entirely unknown because there is yet another important piece of information embedded in the four observed bursts. The burst signals are blurred out in a way that looks different at high radio frequencies than at low ones. Such blurring occurs when radio waves pass through the thin smattering of atoms between galaxies, and gets stronger the farther the waves travel. The amount of blurring Thornton measured strongly indicates that the object causing the radio flashes must lie outside our home galaxy. Way, way outside our galaxy, in the far reaches of the cosmos.

That helps narrow down where the fast radio bursts are, but the question of what they are is still wide open. Their extreme distance suggests they must be extremely powerful, or else they would not be detectable at all. Thornton’s thoughts initially went to cataclysmic events like an exploding star collapsing into a black hole, or two ultradense neutron stars smashing into each other. But such extreme detonations should produce detectable flashes of light, x-rays, or gamma rays as well–and so far, searches for flashes associated with the four bursts has come up empty.

Put in layman’s terms: Scientists are stumped. Two astrophysicists, Heino Falke and Luciano Rezzolla, have put forward a proposal that fast radio bursts could be produced by a particularly exotic type of stellar explosion. In this scenario, a dying, massive star collapses first into an ultra-fast-rotating neutron star. Gradually the star slows down and undergoes another collapse into a black hole. As the neutron star dies, it emits a final, blazing burst of radio waves. Falke and Rezzolla call it a “blitzar,” but for now it is entirely hypothetical. Other theorists are surely working on alternate explanations.

One immediate, if somewhat obvious, lesson from the discovery of fast radio bursts is that the universe is still full of strange, unexplored phenomena. Astronomers are not about to run out of new frontiers anytime soon.

More subtly, the work of Thornton and his team shows the incredible value of watching the universe in real time: viewing it as a movie rather than as a series of static snapshots, and watching attentively for things that change from moment to moment–even from millisecond to millisecond. In the 1960s, Jocelyn Bell took this approach and discovered pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars that emit precise pulses of radiation, like the beam from a lighthouse. In the 1990s, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory watched the gamma-ray sky in real time and collected evidence for the most powerful explosions in the universe. Cosmic time may be measured in billions of years, but cosmic events can unfold literally in the blink of an eye.

Thornton and others are pressing on with the movie-camera approach. Future high-speed radio studies at various observatories, including the powerful Square Kilometer Array, will gather a lot more information about fast radio bursts. The planned Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will perform the same kind of duty at visible wavelengths, looking for things that go flash in the night.

And when the results come in, I will very likely be writing the words “cosmic mystery” all over again.

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell


  • coreyspowell

    Any ideas about what it could be? I’d be interested to hear what readers think.

    • Marc Favell

      Judging by the picture of the radio map of the sky that looks very much like a cell,multicellular organisms with singles that communicate across the membrane, may be our universe is just just one cell of a larger organism.

    • Gautham Sivakumar

      I know this is kind of far-fetched, but there could be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe… There could be places in other galaxies where conditions are suitable enough for life to evolve. Conditions like these are fairly uncommon, but that explains why we are probably the only planet in the Milky Way to have intelligent life.

      • Hatetotellya

        I am of the opposite mind. Considering that we have only just begun to find other worlds apparently suitable for life, and that our searches are primitive at best, ‘goldilocks’ conditions may be more common than you think. I have read that scientists are now very optimistic that we are not alone, as opposed to pre-extra solar planet discoveries. So while intelligent life elsewhere in the universe most likely exists, I doubt they would waste energy in such a way that would render it detectable from billions of light years away. We are talking about energy levels belonging to black holes and neutron stars. I tend to believe that there is other intelligent life in our own galaxy as well as beyond it, but that whatever these fast radio bursts are, they are natural phenomena.

        I know of nothing in the universe that there is only one of. It is naïve to believe we are the only example of intelligent life. It is just as naïve to believe that in a galaxy so vast, Earth is the only place that self awareness came to be.

        • danny_livewire

          “Can anyone name one other thing that there is only one of in nature?” …. Such a good point!

          …. I suspect these are Radio Transmissions coming from Spacecraft traveling at Warp Speed.

          • Centrecountyblog

            Perhaps space is similar to a room with mirrors on all surfaces and we only THINK in terms of time. That’s all we understand. Even time travel could be as simple as walking into another room.

        • Sonia waterwindstars

          In a previous issue of Discover I read that there is not even “only one universe.” This would depend on how you define [the] [a] universe. Infinite number of infinite universes rather than a single infinite universe? Then there is no “outside”? Amateurs in the peanut gallery like me don’t have the language even to ask the questions, but that doesn’t stop us.

        • Emkay

          your words..”or that earth is the only place that evolved creatures that are self-aware”..so far its the ‘only one of’…

          • Hatetotellya

            when all evidence shows that there is ALWAYS more than one, the only logical conclusion to draw is that “so far”, we are not capable of detecting the others. Our abilities at long range sensing is so miniscule right now. It’s like looking at the surface of the ocean and saying there is no life in the ocean. We have only just begun to peer under the water, so to speak.

          • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

            “Can anyone name one other thing that there is only one of in nature?”..
            there is only one of you!…

          • Hatetotellya

            Nonsense, I am but one example of billions of my kind. You prove my point. There is only one sol as well, but uncountable stars. Only one Earth, but uncountable planets. Only one whale named “Willie”, I think, but many other of his kind. But this was not my intent when I asked the question. There are always more than one TYPE of whale, planet, star, sand grain, tree, gas, vapor, particle, ad infinitum, and so too, there must be more than one kind of intelligent, self aware life.

          • lucyhaye

            What is important is to know and to discus is IF Einstein is
            wrong or not since it seems to be proved without the minimum doubt that he is
            wrong because started from the Lorentz’s misconceived equations, which doesn’t
            satisfy the Energy Conservation Principle.

            Galileo-Newton and
            Lorentz-Carezani transformation


      • bwana

        ” intelligent life elsewhere in the universe” I doubt we’ve found intelligent life on Earth yet!?

        • Emkay

          speak for yourself, ‘bwana puppy’

      • Emkay

        wrong, we re-elected Obummer….

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Robert Pannell

          Absolute proof that there ARE higher life-forms among the American electorate!

    • danielapowell

      Just my thoughts here ….. I have no idea. As fascinating as all of this is I cannot offer anything meaningful. But, heck, being me and always wanting to get in on the conversation; Cosmic Popcorn farts. Really old ones.

    • duelles

      Does interaction with other universes have any weight? If 5-11 b light years is accurate, no, but a bump in the light from further out? Maybe

    • Emkay

      observe some low grade logical thinking…if radio waves are blocked by objects like planets and moons etc. (we receive no -FM-waves from China-through Earth, do we?)..I find it hard to understand how radio waves 60 gazillion miles away make it across the universe without hitting something and being blocked?….we are told that our own Milky Way has billions of stars, with planets and asteroids, comets, moons etc..dust..all sorts of things would exist between us (trillions of galaxies) and those pulses.. oh yeah, and those pulses are happening every 8 seconds?… and they are an average of 8 billion years old, these pulses…

      I’m reaching for the BS flag….

    • Valjean1

      It might even be harmonics…sourced from many points…just as sound does.

  • Buddy199

    Staggering to think that electromagnetic waves traveled at the speed of light for 11 thousand million years to reach us

    • coreyspowell

      About 60 sextillion miles. Such a huge number that the name and meaning of it is almost impossible for the human mind to grasp…and yet we are fully capable of measuring it!

  • Johannes Delacroix

    god farticles it seems this is…lols!

  • http://mrpant.com Anupum

    It is just other people sending SMSes to their relatives living across the galactic cluster.

    • Leobardo Arias

      Lol!!! You might be not that far away from truth!!!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

    In the far future, physicists will use a time machine to journey to the source of the bursts, to see what happened. And then they will realize… it was a time machine arriving.

    • coreyspowell

      A very “Terminator” view of the world. Or maybe “La Jetee.”

  • Jay Eva

    Hmmmm….what are the chances that these might be evidence of either naturally occurring (or “man” made) Einstein-Rosen Bridges? Maybe the FRB’s are the collapsing, in the case of a naturally occurring, ERB’s or maybe some intelligence is using the FRB’s as microburst communications in conjunction with, in the case of “man” made ERB’s?

    • coreyspowell

      We will know a lot more about fast radio bursts when the Square Kilometer Array Precursor starts doing a wide-field survey for transient radio sources. It’s impossible to know if there is any pattern or periodicity to the bursts until we get a much larger sample.

      And it’s useful to remember what happened when Jocelyn Bell and Tony Hewish first discovered the radio emissions from pulsars. At the time, there was no obvious natural cause of these powerful, extremely regular radio signals. A few astronomers half-jokingly referred to them as LGMs–for “little green men.”

      In the end, the explanation required no alien intelligence, though it did add greatly to our understanding of the weird and wonderful menagerie of objects in the universe.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      well of course..’lil buddy…

  • Steve

    If life as we know it is any indicator, they could be a form of WMD from a very advanced life form….maybe a type of cyber warfare.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Mike Bro

    Using the earth as an analog, the measured gravitational acceleration is greater at the poles than at the equator. Lower acceleration could be due to: 1. centrifugal force producing an outward radial force counteracting gravity or 2. the equatorial bulge moves the measurement reference point further away from the center of mass, i.e. 1/r^2 effect….

    Using that analogy, if the rapidly rotating neutron star was observed from a polar orbit, would it appear as a black hole if viewed from the poles but a neutron star when viewed at the equator. Would there be a transition region at some latitude at which an observer would see the star change from star to black hole???

  • Doug Brown

    If time travel could be accomplished and space and time was folded where something could travel in time. It would be quite possible to me that such a thing would create something similar to what they are seeing.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      what thing?….

  • Valjean1

    Sound has sound, Doppler and harmonics. Light has light, Doppler and…why not also harmonics. A signal with more than one source. It needs to be part of the research.

  • Quaintance Bon

    If these events do in fact turn out to be a “contact” scenario, I carry a bit of sadness, in that Carl Sagan was not able to witness the fulfillment of one of his highest hopes and dreams for mankind.

    • Emkay

      hey…maybe it IS Carl…from the other side….

  • Phill Asheeo

    Amazing. On the neutron star theory: if this is a star collapsing into a neutron star and then further to singularity, shouldn’t x-rays and gamma rays and such be detected FIRST, at a time prior to the “final radio burst”? As I’m not a cosmologist I may sound like an idiot, but…

  • SL Minton

    Not Einstein-Rosen bridges but, perhaps, black holes. Let’s say there’s another universe nearby. The mouth of a black hole opens in that universe and the “rear entrance” opens in this one. The mouth swallows, the rear entrance expels. While I’ve read many things about black holes, I’ve never been able to find anything that wasn’t sci-fi concerning their end points. Of course, I’m reaching but I’ve always wondered about where black holes end and what might occur there. Even though it’s a biological example, everything I’ve read about black holes tends to skew in that fashion (they “swallow everything including light”). Just an idea, possibly a stupid one, but that was my thought upon reading this article.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Ian Ward

    The flashes apparently occurred up to 11 billion years ago yet it’s still too soon for us to conclude what caused them!

  • Nicholas57

    You know I’ve just been diagnosed with floaters and flashes in my eyes (common middle aged aliment) so could this be the motes in Gods eyes flashing across the cosmos to us….

  • John

    I suggest that the brevity of these events may indicate a lighthouse effect, in which radio energy is focused into a relatively narrow beam that sweeps across us. It may not not require as much energy as a burst or collapse, but mostly a focusing mechanism like gravitational lensing or some large scale refractory or reflection effect.

  • Valjean1

    No thoughts on if it might be harmonics at work??

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Robert Pannell

    In an infinite Cosmos, all things that are possible, ARE!

  • Farhad MAMMADOV

    Maybe this is some kind a beam viruses that cause calamaties and cataclysms in Earth

    • lucyhaye

      Don’t loose your time and our with **delirium tremen.** A Historic New Paradigm deserve your time and the other all people interested in the Scientific World: http://autodynamicslborg.blogspot.com

      • Farhad MAMMADOV

        Don’t be rude, every opinion has its point, many ideas ridiculed in past, have become true at present. And besides i’m sci-fi writer so, found your article interesting.To be honest discovermagazine is main source for my writings since 2008

  • Farhad MAMMADOV

    Very much smells ‘dogma’…What do you do,Lucy, by the way.


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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