Credit: Danielle Futselaar,

Where do short, dramatic bursts of radio light seen across the universe originate from? Labeled as fast radio bursts (FRBs), these are mysterious extragalactic events.

Although FRBs last for only a thousandth of a second, there are now hundreds of records of these enigmatic sources.

New news is that telescopes in the European VLBI Network (EVN) have observed a “repeating” fast radio burst (FRB) in a spiral galaxy similar to our own.

This FRB is the closest to Earth ever localized and was found in a radically different environment to previous studies.

Puzzle piece

“This discovery represented the first piece of the puzzle but it also raised more questions than it solved, such as whether there was a fundamental difference between repeating and non-repeating FRBs,” says Benito Marcote from the Joint Institute for VLBI ERIC.

“Now, we have localized a second repeating FRB, which challenges our previous ideas on what the source of these bursts could be,” Marcote notes in a Joint Institute for VLBI ERIC (JIVE) in Dwingeloo, the Netherlands.

Zoo of locations

“The found repeating FRB, but also different from all previously studied FRBs,” explains Kenzie Nimmo, PhD student at the University of Amsterdam.

“The differences between repeating and non-repeating fast radio bursts are thus less clear and we think that these events may not be linked to a particular type of galaxy or environment,” Nimmo says. “It may be that FRBs are produced in a large zoo of locations across the Universe and just require some specific conditions to be visible.”

“We hope that continued studies will unveil the conditions that result in the production of these mysterious flashes. Our aim is to precisely localize more FRBs and, ultimately, understand their origin,” adds Jason Hessels, corresponding author on the study, from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) and the University of Amsterdam.

Image of the host galaxy of FRB 180916 (center) acquired with the 8-meter Gemini-North telescop on Hawaii’s Maunakea.
Credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF’s Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/AURA

Radio and optical observatories

Observations were conducted with the European Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (EVN). The EVN is the most sensitive very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) array in the world, which allows researchers to conduct unique, high-resolution, radio astronomical observations of cosmic radio sources.

Data from the EVN is processed at the Joint Institute for VLBI ERIC (JIVE) — an international research infrastructure based in the Netherlands, which also provides support, conducts leading research and forwards technical development in the field of radio astronomy.

Follow up optical observations were conducted using 8.1m Gemini North, National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory and Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (USA).

Go to this informative video on fast radio burst (FRB) research at:

Also, go to this research paper – “A repeating fast radio burst source localized to a nearby spiral galaxy” — in Nature:

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