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Telescope spots 20 new fast radio bursts

With the help of Western Australia's CSIRO radio telescope array, astronomers have nearly doubled the number of documented fast radio bursts, or FRBs.

Fast radio bursts are unique high-energy radio pulses lasting just a few milliseconds.

The first FRB was identified in 2007 from archival data collected by the Parkes radio dish in Australia in 2001. In the following decade, 30 more fast radio bursts have been discovered by massive radio telescopes.

Over the past year, scientists identified 20 more FRBs, including the closest and brightest yet observed. Astronomers described the new fast radio bursts this week in the journal Nature Communications.

"We've also proved that fast radio bursts are coming from the other side of the universe rather than from our own galactic neighborhood," Ryan Shannon, an astronomer from Swinburne University of Technology, said in a news release.

Astronomers credit CSIRO's radio telescope technology, the Australia Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder, or ASKAP, with the increased rate of FRB discovery.

"The telescope has a whopping field of view of 30 square degrees, 100 times larger than the full moon," CSIRO engineer Keith Bannister said. "And, by using the telescope's dish antennas in a radical way, with each pointing at a different part of the sky, we observed 240 square degrees all at once -- about a thousand times the area of the full moon."

Though scientists have struggled to pinpoint the origins of FRBs, scientists are getting better at tracking the signals. One survey successfully traced a fast radio burst to an elliptical galaxy 6 billion light-years away.

The latest survey offers additional proof that most FRBs originate from outside the Milky Way.

As FRBs pass through molecular clouds on the way towards telescope lenses on Earth, their wavelengths are refracted. The spectral lines spread out, causing the bursts different frequency bands to slow down. By measuring the staggered arrival of these signals, scientists can estimate how far the bursts traveled.

"Because we've shown that fast radio bursts come from far away, we can use them to detect all the missing matter located in the space between galaxies -- which is a really exciting discovery," said Jean-Pierre Macquart, researcher at the Curtin University.

Scientists still aren't certain what causes fast radio bursts, though some cosmologists think the phenomenon is triggered by collisions between relativistic objects.

Astronomers hope CSIRO will soon be able to track the origin of fast radio bursts with unprecedented precision, allowing scientists to narrow down possible causes.

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