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Canadian telescope detects repeating radio frequency from billions of light years away

Phenomena called fast radio bursts have been discovered by astrophysicists. (WWMT/CBS Graphic/Nature)

In a galaxy far, far away - an estimated 1.5 billion light years away to be exact - a discovery made by astrophysicists should shed light on bursts of radio energy observed across the universe.

Phenomena called fast radio bursts were discovered fairly recently, in 2007. They are described as high-energy flashes of radio waves that last only a millisecond, but their exact origin is unknown.

Detected by radio telescopes in numerous locations around the globe, fast radio bursts have been observed 60 times since their initial discovery. Considering the telescope's pinhole view through which those radio bursts have been observed, however, scientists estimate that as many as 5,000 to 10,000 occur every day across the sky. Until recently, though, only one had ever been observed to repeat bursts of energy from the same origin.

According to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, scientists have now located a second repeating fast radio burst. Research on the first repeating burst was published in early 2017 by astrophysicist Shami Chatterjee and his team of researchers at Cornell University.

The second discovery of a repeating burst allows for much further observation and analysis. Also, at 1.5 billion light years away, it's much closer to Earth than its predecessor.

"Now that we know that it's sitting at that spot in the sky, and winking on and off every once in a while, they can leave telescopes pointed at that thing and catch it with different frequencies and different observatories," Chatterjee said. "We should be able to learn a lot more about it."

The latest repeating radio frequency was one of the first major discoveries made by the new Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME. Located in the mountains of British Columbia, the CHIME radio telescope was in its pre-commissioning phase when it observed the latest batch of 13 fast radio bursts, with one of those being the repeater. The telescope was operating with only a small amount of its full capacity.

Each radio burst contains a mind boggling amount of energy, the researchers said.

"It is an absolutely immense amount of energy packed into this one pulse; 25 million times more than the energy put off by the sun, in one millisecond," Chatterjee said.

In recent years, numerous theories have been published and modeled to try to explain the possible origin of the the energy, but fast radio bursts are still largely a mystery. The source is likely something compact such as a neutron star or black hole, just on a much more extreme scale than man has observed so far, Chatterjee said.

There are many theories about what causes the signals, but without more information, the pulses remain a puzzle to researchers.

Astrophysicists hope the CHIME project will answer enough questions to pin down some of the dozens of theories out there.

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