Earlier this month, scientists caught a fleeting glimpse of a fast radio burst, or FRB, when their telescope just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia is credited with recording the pulses of radio waves, but what you likely haven’t read is the 24-year-old woman in charge of the research group, Emily Petroff, is originally from Oregon.
Petroff grew up in Portland and said she knew from a young age that she wanted to be an astronomer. After receiving a telescope as a childhood gift, her parents often took her camping in eastern Oregon to observe the starry skies.
She later decided to study at Carleton College in Minnesota. She went on to intern in Australia, and eventually was accepted into a PhD program at Swinburne University. Her doctoral studies focused on pulsars — a type of neutron star — but one day she unexpectedly recorded an FRB, a single, bright radio pulse, using the university’s Parkes Telescope.
FRBs only last a few milliseconds, and Petroff said the bursts likely happen far outside our galaxy.
“I think it was a lot of luck,” said Petroff. “We’ve found these things in the past. It was fortunate that it was my project.”
A total of nine FRBs have been recorded all over the world since the first FRB was detected in 2007, but scientists typically only notice the documentation weeks and sometimes years after the actual burst when looking through data.
The Parkes Telescope data showed new properties too. “The waves appear to be circularly polarised rather than linearly polarised, which means they vibrate in two planes, rather than one,” reports the New Scientist.
Based on this, researchers believe that up to 10,000 FRBs could be happening every day.
Scientists don’t know exactly what causes them, which has led to some speculative media reports about extraterrestrial life, but Petroff said it’s much more likely that the bursts are either energetic flares from a star in another galaxy or two neutron stars colliding.
Petroff attributes her team’s discovery of the live FRB to recording technology getting better and more sensitive.
“We’re able to do this stuff in real time,” she said. “We’re processing the the data in real time and we can see what it looks like. (The telescope) almost instantly found it within 10 seconds of when it happened.”
The group quickly got in touch with other researchers all over the world who had access to telescopes so they could hopefully document other FRBs. Petroff said that she went from managing a team of 15 at the university to 35 scientists all over the world, from India to the U.S. to Germany to Denmark.
“We can’t really predict where to find the next one,” said Petroff. “We just survey the sky and hope we’re looking at the right patch of sky at the right time.”