Record-breaking fast radio burst is most distant ever detected

on 19 October 2023
Scientists have discovered an eight-billion-year-old fast radio burst (FRB) – the most ancient and distant located to date.
Artist's impression of the fast radio burst and the instruments used to detect and locate it.
Artist's impression of the fast radio burst and the instruments used to detect and locate it, CSIRO's ASKAP radio telescope and ESO's Very Large Telescope. Credit: Carl Knox (OzGrav/Swinburne University)

In a paper published today in Science, a global team led by Macquarie University’s Dr Stuart Ryder and Swinburne University of Technology’s A/Prof. Ryan Shannon, report on their discovery, which smashes the team’s previous record by 50%. 

FRBs are a key science interest for the SKA Observatory, and authors of the paper include SKAO Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Hao Qiu and several members of the SKAO’s Science Working Groups.

The discovery was made using CSIRO’s ASKAP* radio telescope in Western Australia and ESO’s optical Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.

The source of the burst was shown to be a group of two or three galaxies that are merging, supporting current theories on the cause of fast radio bursts. The team also showed that eight billion years is about as far back as we can expect to see and pinpoint fast radio bursts with current telescopes.

ASKAP detected the burst, named FRB 20220610A, on 10 June 2022. It was created in a cosmic event that released, in milliseconds, the equivalent of our Sun’s total emission over 30 years. ASKAP was used to determine precisely where the burst originated, and the VLT enabled the team to search for the host galaxy. 

The study is a prime example of the new era of multi-wavelength astronomy, where facilities observing different types of light are used together to reveal more than they could do individually. 

“Radio observations give us key information that allows us to measure the turbulent magnetised interstellar and intergalactic medium between us and the host galaxy. Optical observations play a complementary role by enabling us to identify the distance of the host galaxy and learn more about the host and foreground environment along the line of sight,” Dr Qiu said.

“Comparing the radio and optical data allows us to test cosmological models of the intergalactic medium and better understand what could create these bursts.”

The paper confirms that FRBs are common events in the cosmos and can be used to measure the “missing” matter between galaxies, to better understand the structure of the Universe.

“If we count up the amount of normal matter in the Universe – the atoms that we are all made of – we find that more than half of what should be there today is missing. We think that the missing matter is hiding in the space between galaxies, but it may just be so hot and diffuse that it's impossible to see using normal techniques,” Dr Shannon said.

“Fast radio bursts sense this ionised material. Even in space that is nearly perfectly empty they can ‘see’ all the electrons, and that allows us to measure how much stuff is between the galaxies.”

ASKAP is currently the best radio telescope to detect and locate FRBs, until the SKA telescopes (currently under construction in Australia and South Africa) come online.

“The SKA telescopes will be even more sensitive, which means we will be able to search for fainter FRBs from further distances,” said Dr Qiu. 

“Larger, more sensitive optical/infrared telescopes will be crucial to assist us in identifying these distant host galaxies.”

*CSIRO's ASKAP radio telescope is an SKA precursor situated at Inyarrimanha Ilgari Bundara, the CSIRO Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, on Wajarri Yamaji Country in Western Australia.


Alt text: In this artist’s impression, three cream and pink coloured galaxies are jumbled together in the upper left corner. From this group, a bright yellow streak points towards the bottom right, where it intersects with a dot on a spiral arm of the Milky Way. The Milky Way, with a glowing white centre and blue-purple spiral arms, stands out against the black background faintly speckled with distant galaxies.
This artist’s impression (not to scale) illustrates the path of the fast radio burst FRB 20220610A, from the distant galaxy where it originated all the way to Earth, in one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser