Mysterious Radio Burst Traced to Galaxy 4 Billion Light-Years Away

To discover the source of a one-off, mysterious space signal, an international team of astronomers utilized telescopes around the world.
CSIRO/Dr. Andrew Howells

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, something mysterious launched a burst of radio waves into the cosmos. Last September, that powerful pulse collided with an array of radio telescopes in the western Australian Outback. Though the fleeting barrage lasted mere milliseconds, scientists were able to trace the radio burst back to its source: A galaxy roughly four billion light-years away in the constellation Grus, the crane.

While astronomers have seen hundreds of these cosmic pulses over the past decade or so, the latest work marks the first time they’ve caught a single burst in action and subsequently pinpointed its origin. In principle, finding out where these so-called fast radio bursts (FRBs) come from should help scientists narrow down the machinery that powers such extreme explosions.

“The localizations are crucial,” says Keith Bannister of Australia’s Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization, who reports the burst’s home today in the journal Science. “The next few localizations should hopefully show how diverse a phenomenon we’re dealing with, which will really help the theorists work out what’s going on.”