Just two months ago, researchers picked up and then located the position of a weird burst of radio waves from outer space, provoking heated debate about just what was actually sending them. Now, the recent data has finally revealed that source. Harvard astronomer Peter Williams said in a statement “Part of the scientific process is investigating findings to see if they hold up. In this case, it looks like there’s a more mundane explanation for the original radio observations,”
Peter Williams is co-author (along with Harvard colleague Edo Berger) of a research paper that has just been added by Astrophysical Journal Letters. That “mundane explanation” is actually a center around a supermassive black hole. For the past nine years, astronomers have been recording a sequence of bizarre pulses of radio waves sent from somewhere far, far away in space. These radio waves were named Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) and they last only milliseconds. They’re nearly always identified after they’re over, which makes pointing out where they came from a serious challenge.
That’s one of the reason, why it was so surprising when astronomers were finally able to not only discover an FRB happening in real time, but that they were also able to rapidly detect its location: a galaxy 6 billion light years away. A discussion rapidly followed over the origin of these FRBs, and many others like it. Skeptical researchers postulated alternate explanations for the traced FRB—and now, it turns out that one of those skeptics might be right.
After the FRB was detected, Williams and Berger from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics instantly used the Very Large Array’s set of radio telescopes to get a clear look at the galaxy where the signal first originated. They were amazed to discover that the signal was still going strong.
If it had, truly, been a FRB, then the signal should have dropped out quickly after the burst. Instead, what they were observing was cyclic, with radio discharges becoming stronger before dimming again. The source also soon turn out to be a clear: A massive black hole at the galaxy’s center, which was releasing these bursts of radio waves.
What it most definitely is not, is a FRB. There’s still a long record of these odd cosmic signals going back years. In those circumstances, the source remains a complete mystery.