Fast radio bursts were dismissed as microwave oven aberrations until confirmed by the Arecibo telescope. But what are they?
They are blasts from the past, shrieks from the black abyss of the universe unlike anything ever found before. And they are deeply mysterious.
Are these some new cosmic phenomenon, an odd habit of nature that we never knew? Or could they be the deliberate wails of societies howling from the farthest corners of space?
In 2007, Duncan Lorimer at West Virginia University was digging through historical records from the Parkes radio telescope in Australia when he and his colleagues stumbled across an unusual signal.
It was no more than a hiccup, a burst of radio energy as fleeting as ocean foam. No one had ever found anything similar, and probably for that reason it was overlooked even by those who had first recorded the data.
Lorimer published this discovery, and the astronomical community scratched its collective pate. What the heck was this? Was it even for real? Some had doubts. Regular visitors to the Parkes antenna, which squats in the fly-filled sheep country west of Sydney, Australia know that there's a kitchen microwave just below the control room. In the 1990s, I frequently used it myself to heat up lunch. So maybe the radio hoots weren't heavenly, but merely ovenly.
However, when other, similar bursts were later found by the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, the Parkes microwave was exonerated. Clearly, these quick radio blasts — christened "fast radio bursts," or FRBs — are for real.