In DepthRadio Astronomy

Fast radio bursts tease astronomers

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Science  04 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6277, pp. 1012-1013
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6277.1012

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The more radio astronomers learn about fast radio bursts (FRBs), the more confused they get. Last week, a scientific paper suggested that the powerful, milliseconds-long pulses of radio waves from space result when superdense burnt-out stars called neutron stars collide and perish in remote galaxies. But this week, another paper reports multiple bursts from an FRB—something merging neutron stars cannot explain. FRBs pop up all over the sky but are extremely hard to detect. Only 17 have been discovered since 2007—too few for scientists to say much about what causes them. The two new papers don't solve the mystery. But by proving that FRBs come in at least two distinct varieties, they are spurring scientists to collect more data on what some say could soon become a major field of astrophysical research.