Astronomers are getting closer to solving one of the universe’s biggest mysteries.
Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are transient radio pulses that emit more energy in a single millisecond than the sun does all day.
As many as 10,000 of them are thought to occur every day but so far astronomers have only spotted dozens and have struggled to pin down their origin.
Fast radio bursts are extremely powerful but they are also very short, lasting only milliseconds.
Making a researcher’s task even more difficult, many of them only happen once.
One, however, has been observed to repeat itself sporadically, allowing researchers to examine it more closely.
FRB 121102 could have come from an extreme environment – “among the most highly-magnetised regions of space ever observed”, researchers say in a report contained in the journal Nature.
Massive black holes have a similar environment around them.
That is not the only possibility, however.
The bursts from FRB 121102 could also come from a young neutron star inside a powerful nebula, or a supernova remnant, according to the research.
Shami Chatterjee, senior research associate in astronomy at Cornell University, said: “If we had one of these on the other side of our own galaxy – the Milky Way – it would disrupt radio here on Earth and we’d notice, as it would saturate the signal levels on our smartphones.”
Speaking about the environment where the FRB could come from, he said: “Whatever is happening there is scary – we would not want to be there.”
FRB 121102’s pulses come from three billion light years away and are more than 500 times greater than any other FRB seen so far.
It was first seen in 2012, its signal captured by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
FRBs in general were first discovered in 2007 but, because they are so difficult to research, even small amounts of progress are exciting for astronomers.
The data contained in the Nature study came from telescopes at Arecibo Observatory and Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, US.
James Cordes, professor of astronomy at Cornell University, said: “It’s remote sensing from three billion light years away.
“These new measurements allow us to be much more specific about the immediate surroundings of the source.”