The Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts

The Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts

[♪ INTRO] In 2007, an astronomer named Duncan Lorimer
discovered an oddly brief, strong radio signal that seemed to come from
an unidentified source in space. Astronomers were baffled. Usually, bursts of radio waves
come in predictable, repeating patterns, like the ones we’ve detected
from stars called pulsars. This was totally new. At first, skepticism was high that this lone
burst was important. Sometimes weird signals turn out to just be
glitches, or we find out that they’re caused by interference from
communications equipment on Earth. But with more research, astronomers confirmed
that the signal wasn’t just a glitch, and it came from at least
3 billion lightyears away. The question was: what caused it? 10 years later, we still have no idea. Since Lorimer’s initial discovery, we’ve
found more of these signals. They’re known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs,
which is actually a pretty descriptive name: they’re quick bursts of bright light in
the radio wavelength range of the electromagnetic spectrum. FRBs last just a few milliseconds, and so
far, we’ve only been able to detect them from Earth by pointing
telescopes in exactly the right direction at precisely the right time. But since we don’t know where they come from, we don’t really know where to look
or when to expect them. Which is part of why we’ve detected less
than two dozen FRBs so far. In the past decade, astronomers have
come up with a few ideas about what might be causing them. One option is that the FRBs come from collapsing
neutron stars, the rapidly spinning, ridiculously dense cores left over
after certain stars go supernova. If the neutron star is dense enough,
it’ll be overcome by gravity and collapse into a black hole. But if it’s spinning fast enough, that can
hold off the collapse for a little bit. When the neutron star eventually faces its
doom, its magnetic field will be ripped apart, which could cause charged particles
within the star to shoot out a quick, bright burst of radio waves,
in other words, an FRB. Another possibility is that FRBs come from
two very dense objects merging, like black holes or neutron stars. As they spiral in toward each other,
the merger causes tons of energy to be thrown out of the system, possibly
in the form of a fast radio burst. Researchers have come up with
lots of potential explanations like these, but they haven’t been able to
confirm any of them yet. The other issue is that these explanations
only fit single, isolated FRBs. But in 2016, astronomers announced
that they’d discovered 10 repeating bursts that all seemed to come
from the same source. One possibility is that repeating bursts
come from a magnetar, a special type of neutron star that’s
super magnetic and spins especially fast. These stars might produce FRBs when they send
out flares. But even though these explanations
might make sense in theory, they’re all just educated guesses
based on the types of things researchers think could possibly
send out brief, strong bursts of radio waves. This whole field of research is still really new, and astronomers don’t have
much data to work with. But they’re hoping to have a lot more soon. Based on how the number of bursts
we’ve found compares to how long we’ve spent looking for them
in different parts of the sky, researchers think an FRB might reach Earth
as often as every 10 seconds. And they’re trying to catch
as many of them as possible. Most of the telescopes astronomers use
are designed to be really sensitive, because they’re trying to detect
the faintest signals. These telescopes can only focus on
tiny areas of the sky at a time, so they’re not good at detecting
unpredictable things like FRBs. But FRBs are so strong that you don’t need
a super sensitive telescope to spot them. Astronomers are planning
to take advantage of that. One of the most promising projects,
set to start at the end of 2017, will use the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity
Mapping Experiment, or CHIME. CHIME is made up of four, hundred-meter-long
open cylinders with multiple antennas, which will allow it to monitor
much larger patches of the sky than other, higher-sensitivity telescopes
that can only monitor one small area at a time. Using CHIME, astronomers think
they’ll be able to detect more than a dozen FRBs per day. Other projects are using telescopes that are
even less sensitive, like one that will use an array of ten 5-meter-wide dishes to search
huge patches of the sky. So, hopefully soon
we’ll be detecting way more FRBs, which should help astronomers
figure out which of their ideas are right. Or maybe they’ll find out that all their
ideas were wrong. Either way, we still have a lot to learn about
what’s out there. Thanks for watching this episode
of SciShow Space, and thanks especially to our patrons on Patreon
who help make this show possible. If you want to help us
keep making episodes like this, you can go to
to learn more. And don’t forget to go to
and subscribe! [♪ OUTRO]

100 thoughts on “The Mystery of Fast Radio Bursts

  1. It's always a little frightening to hear the words they describe some of the things going on in other solar systems. If anything like that would happen over here, it would be game over man, game over.

  2. Whatever it is makes hair fall out. What other explanation could there be?
    Everyone, please watch my tiny nature videos. There is no talking in them. Shhh!

  3. It's really neat to be tackling an astronomical mystery like this by making our equipment LESS sensitive. Probably wasn't the first option on the table.

  4. When you say "fast" radio burst are you talking about "fast" as in how quick it's traveling, because I thought radio waves travel as fast as light, or "fast" as in how quickly the energy was emitted

  5. If it was merging blackholes, we should have received the FRB as well as gravity waves at the same time, but there was no mention of that. I'd like to believe it's something like 2 merging magnetars, that'd be awesome.

  6. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

    Haven't eliminated aliens yet.

  7. How do radio astronomers rule out interference from spy satellites? I get that there would be some sort of publically available database for communication or gps satellites, but how would they know where the top secret government ones are? And whether or not they might skew the researchers findings?

  8. If they detected a radio burst they have to know where it came from. Why dont they just point the telescope back at that location and see what pops up?

  9. If we detect an FRB at radio frequency after it travelled three billion light years, I wonder what its original frequency was.

  10. Do the aliens have international certifications to be able to legally broadcast on the radio channels used?

  11. My first thought when he explained what FRBs are was black holes. I know that perpendicular to the accretion disk are jets of x-rays. Since the first one that he mentioned came from 3 billion light years away, it's possible that it red shifted all the way to radio waves. Of course this is just the hypothesis of a high school student, but it's a guess.

  12. #1 rule on TV and Video. Don't wear check or stripe pattern clothes. You can avoid the interference patterns it creates by just making the video 60fps, but that excludes some of your audience. Better to just change clothes.

  13. I thought we were sending strong radiowaves that can only be detected if pointed exactly towards earth. How is this different?

  14. What if it's a alien ship spinning up and going into FTL travel. The burst of light is them going away from us and the light is the only way of us knowing what happened

  15. And thanks for only using the word "just" three times in your video. I'm sure that's not super confusing to translate into other languages.

  16. Astrophysicist here. Reid says "magnetar: a special type of neutron star that's super magnetic and spins especially fast". He means slow. The spin period of a magnetar is on the order of a few seconds, slower than most neutron stars.

  17. Black holes dense objects? Black holes are the least dense stellar objects out there. Its nothing but the singularity and a whole bunch of messed up space-time between it and the event horizon.

  18. Hey NASA, ESA, JAXA! Point these radio telescopes at storm clouds. That's one of your sources out of the way! Ya ••••ing twits.

  19. I remember trying to do a talk like this explaining the science behind a complex subject in Uni and getting cut off by the lecturer because i was going 'over time' and I didn't get to tell the most interesting part of my talk to the class. I'm glad you don't have shitty lecturer's cutting you off. Love your work!

  20. Really, the comment section is full of people claiming Aliens… Now That's BS, even if they are the cause, what on universe would convince them to Release FRBs out in space like a dozen a day and what on universe would allow them to do this from every patch of the sky?

    The Day's not far when people saying John Cena did it or JPAUL did this.

  21. "The signal came from at least 3 billion light-years away."
    If the FRBs last a few milliseconds, and they are random as to their location in the sky, how the heck does anyone know how far away they come from? You can't triangulate it as that would take multiple measurements of the same signal from different and relatively distant points. You can't tell by the strength of the signal since you don't know the strength at its source. So, how can you tell that it came from at least 3 billion light-years away?

  22. I'm not saying it's aliens, but…

    I really want it to be aliens and not 30 billion year old star farts.

  23. About halfway through, I saw the face of a lion in the nebula over his shoulder. I could not unsee, and that's all I saw after.

  24. @Null weaky
    Religion : Was it good for you – god is great.
    Was it bad for you – god works in mysterious ways

  25. 4 minutes and 52 seconds of over exaggerated gyrating and unrealistic emotion to tell me there is something out there "but you don't know what it is, do Mrs Jones?". I got more science from the song.

  26. i'm obviously wrong here because i'm missing some information, but based on what i'm hearing, i don't see anything that should be confusing? there are so many things emitting practically all parts of the EM spectrum, and everything is moving in a relative direction to earth. isn't it simply just a star or something that produced radio waves that shot past the line of "sight" of the radios which picked it up for the few milliseconds it was in line with it? however many thousands of years ago.

  27. So… you're saying we all still have to wait a while before you start packing and shipping out those mail-order "FRB Scanner kits" from Amazon… Right? :o)

  28. If one recent idea is correct, then telescopes should look for FRBs near the centre of galaxies. In the early universe axions, theoretical particles of which dark matter is composed, would have had more chances to attract each other, form axion stars clumping together there, and pass through the accretion discs of supermassive black holes there, causing some of the bursts we detect. New Scientist 12 August 2017, "Dark matter may make cosmic bursts"

  29. so aliens are trying to communicate with us and yet we're too dumb to understand it? maybe? or maybe it's just space noise.

  30. Remember in interstellar when they received a radio signal and went to investigate and got hit by the big wave. The problem I have with this is the time on the planet was on a different scale. Wouldn't the signal frequency get adjusted to the same measure as the time reference between that planet and ours. They would never have heard the becon because it would have come in on a frequency they didn't expect. What the heck does happen to a signal that is heard from a planet with drastically different gravity from the sensing planet?

  31. maybe a long long time ago 1 alien civilization sent out FRBs across the cosmos and alien astrologists in another galaxy picked it up and they replied with their own FRBs and another picked it up! Could have very well become a trend since then eons ago for aliens to send out FRBs across the universe … its like saying Hiya or Sending a thumbs up to each other! 'bout time we Ping our neighbours in space!

  32. China has built a 500 meter telescope specifically to detect FRBs and reports say have detected hundreds of them during construction itself.

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