News this week that astronomers using our Parkes radio telescope have detected a short, sharp flash of radio waves from an unknown source up to 5.5 billion light years from Earth is the latest chapter in a cosmic ‘whodunnit’ mystery. We have mounting evidence, a team of detectives, and a good pinch of suspense. All we need now is to find the body.
‘Fast radio bursts’ are short and bright: they last only milliseconds but give out an enormous amount of energy.
The first burst was discovered in 2007 by astronomers combing old Parkes data archives for unrelated objects. Five more detections were made from Parkes data before researchers using data collected with the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico made the first finding using another facility.
This latest discovery, made by Swinburne University of Technology PhD student Emily Petroff, is the first ‘live’ detection of one of these mysterious bursts. It could have given off as much energy in a few milliseconds as our Sun does in a day.
One of the big unknowns of fast radio bursts is their distance. The characteristics of the radio signal – how it is ‘smeared out’ in frequency from travelling through space – indicate that the source of the bursts is in the distant Universe. This new burst was up to 5.5 billion light-years away, while others have been up to 11 billion light-years away.
The team of detectives
Since the first burst was discovered astronomers worldwide have been vying to explain the phenomenon.
Confident that she would spot a burst in real-time, Emily had an international team poised to make rapid follow-up observations, at wavelengths from radio to X-ray.
After the Parkes telescope saw the latest burst go off, the team swung into action on 12 telescopes around the world – in Australia, California, the Canary Islands, Chile, Germany, Hawaii, and India – as well as space-based telescopes.
What could be the origin of these mysterious bursts? While evidence is mounting, astronomers are developing and discounting theories.
According to Simon Johnston, CSIRO’s head of astrophysics, based on these latest observations we can rule out some ideas because no counterparts were seen in the optical, infrared, ultraviolet or X-ray. It’s also unlikely that they’re caused by radio interference from man-made sources on Earth, atmospheric phenomena, gamma-ray bursts or evaporating black holes. That they’re caused by a neutron star imploding into a black hole remains a possibility.
A whole new area of astrophysics?
While it’s still early days in the detection and description of fast radio bursts, who knows where it might lead?
Pulsars, the rapidly spinning remnants of supernova explosions that send out regular flashes of radio waves much like a lighthouse’s beacon, were discovered in 1967. In fact, the first pulsar was famously named LGM-1 for ‘little green men’. While the alien theory was quickly quashed, pulsars are now being used by astronomers to look for gravitational waves and to test Einstein’s theory of relativity; they also offer potential as extremely accurate clocks and are possible alternatives to satellite-based global positioning systems. Our Parkes radio telescope has detected over 50% of the more than 2000 known pulsars.
But back to the case at hand. It seems that identifying the origin of these mysterious fast radio bursts is now only a matter of time.
The finding is published today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Emily Petroff is co-supervised by CSIRO and Swinburne University of Technology, which is a member institution of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO).
Reblogged from CSIRO News
Originally posted on News @ CSIRO:
By Glen Nagle
The town of Parkes, NSW – home of our infamous Parkes Radio Telescope – has slipped on its Blue Suede Shoes.
In the second week of January each year, Parkes marks the birthday of Elvis Presley with a massive festival celebrating everything Elvis. It started over 20 years ago as a one-day get together of just a few hundred fans. In 2015, the festival has grown to cover a week of events, shows, parades and exhibits and over 15,000 visitors more than doubling the town’s population.
Along with one of the largest collections of Elvis memorabilia on permanent display at the Henry Parkes Visitor Centre (donated by Wiggles performer, Greg Page), the Parkes Elvis Festival is one of the town’s major icons.
The other great icon of course is the Dish – our very own Parkes radio telescope – so combining these two great icons into one stellar…
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I guess we all love to sleep in on a Sunday morning, maybe just snoozing under the doona, laying there for a few hours before getting up for a late brunch. Ah! Luxury.
On Sunday 7th December 2014, the New Horizons spacecraft, 5 billion kilometres away from the warmth of Earth, had little time to sleep in. It was ‘wake up’ day. The final awakening from hibernation for the next 2 years until well after its encounter with rapidly approaching dwarf planet, Pluto, set for the 14th July 2015.
Waiting back on Earth to hear the spacecraft’s morning ‘alarm’ go off was the giant 70 metre antenna dish at the CSIRO-managed, Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex – Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43).
Covering a distance of nearly 4.8 billion kilometres, New Horizons signal was travelling through space at the speed of light, telling home that it had awoken from final hibernation – periodic times during the mission when the spacecraft’s instruments are shutdown to preserve the systems during the nine year long journey. Nearly 80% of New Horizons journey has been spent in this sleep-mode.
The spacecraft’s transmission was received 4 hours and 26 minutes later at DSS43, with NASA confirming, at 1.53pm (AEDT), the news that the New Horizons team wanted to hear, “It’s Alive!”
Over the next few weeks, the mission team will do the final checkouts on all the spacecraft’s systems and on January 25th will commence an imaging campaign taking a photo of Pluto and its large moon, Charon from 203 million kilometres away.
Nearly daily images will be taken to further refine the understanding of Pluto’s position and the precise locations of its five known moons. This information will allow the mission to plan any changes required to the spacecraft’s trajectory should a previously unknown moon or debris material pose a threat to the mission.
As the spacecraft continues to approach the Pluto system, the resolution of images will dramatically increase, and this far off place will no longer be just a fuzzy point of light – as the Hubble space telescope sees it now – but be revealed as a whole new world to learn about and explore.
The mission team at NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are making final preparations for the spacecraft’s historic encounter with Pluto. The antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network, including the dishes in Canberra, stand ready to receive their discoveries.
After nine years, 5 billion kilometres and travelling at nearly 16 kilometres per second through the cold blackness of space, New Horizons is awake, wiping the sleepy dust from its eyes and getting the robotic version of its morning coffee.
So what did you do with your Sunday morning?
For more information on the New Horizons mission, visit its website.
Following our wonderful time in Kagoshima the PULSE@Parkes team headed back to Honshu for the rest of our busy tour. Next up was an observing session for students around the Tokyo region at the headquarters of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) at Mitaka. NAOJ operates a diverse range of telescopes and facilities including Subaru, ALMA, Nobeyama Radio Observatory and the Mizusawa VLBI Observatory that we had visited the previous year.
Our Mitaka session was held in the evening to allow students from six schools to participate. As this was our first session in Tokyo we had many NAOJ staff and visitors drop by to view the progress of the session. We were assisted by three NAOJ PhD students plus staff from NAOJ including Kameya-san who had helped us so much on our 2013 tour. This meant that each small group of high school students had their own Japanese-speaking support, greatly facilitating questions and engagement.
On the Thursday we heading north to Yamagata. We had visited Professor Shibata and his students at Yamagata University for a day last year but this time we were looking forward to running some observing sessions. On Friday we woke to snow in the hills above the town.
In the early afternoon we ran a test session, joined by four students and staff from Johoku High School who were unable to make the weekend session. After the session Ryan Shannon gave a talk on pulsar astronomy to the undergraduate and post-graduate students and staff from the Astrophysics group of the university. Two of the PhD students, Kana and Satoshi then gave talks about their research. These were given in English, the first time each student had presented in this manner. Despite their nerves both did a great job. Following this we were treated to a suki-yaki dinner prepared by the post-graduate students, we then sat around the table cooking and sharing stories. A fun end to a busy day.
Saturday saw us run a full observing session for students from four Yamagata schools. Assisted by a couple of Yamagata PhD students plus staff and Kameya-san up from Mitaka, we had a lively session. A film crew from the local NHK station attended, interviewing the students and Yamagata staff. This featured on the evening news. Unfortunately strong wind at Parkes bought an early end to the observations but we had sufficient observations for each group to analyse their own pulsar.
Sunday morning saw us together with Kameya-san on a one-hour train trip past a temple and up through a scenic snow-lined mountain pass and across to the town of Ayashi. Our venue for today’s final and largest observing session was the Sendai Astronomical Observatory. Originally located in the nearby city of Sendai the public observatory was relocated out to a darker site at Ayashi several years ago. The new facility is very impressive with a 1.3m telescope a large planetarium and extensive range of displays.
Our session had been widely advertised, we had one student travel 14 hours to get to the session only for her to turn around and travel back overnight afterwards so she could get to school the next day – real commitment! With 25 students from a variety of high schools we were assisted by 10 students from Tohoku University from several different countries. Each of the school and university students introduced themselves at the start of the session. After an introductory talk about pulsars and radio astronomy they then broke up into groups for the observations. Fortunately this time the wind had abated at Parkes so we had a smooth run with lots of good data. Once our observing run was complete each group prepared and presented a short talk about their findings.
As Sendai Observatory is a public facility the session was open to the public. Numerous visitors strolled into the observing room, adding to the atmosphere and engagement of the event. Overall the day was highly successful with a lot of happy students and other participants. As the last formal part of the tour we headed off down to Tokyo for our last night in Japan before flying back to Australia the following day.
The 2014 PULSE@Parkes in Japan tour was a very busy but rewarding one, both for our team from Australia and our old and new friends and collaborators in Japan. It has generated a lot of enthusiasm from some of the participants judging by the feedback we’ve received since returning from Japan. The PULSE@Parkes team would like to thank our collaborators at Kagoshima, Yamagata and Tohoku Universities, NAOJ and Sendai Astronomical Observatory for hosting us and helping to organise the tour. We would especially like to thank the Australia-Japan Foundation for making the tour possible through their generous grant.
PULSE@Parkes in Japan has been supported by the Australian Government through the Australia-Japan Foundation.
The return to Earth in June 2010 of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa spacecraft over the South Australian desert signalled the triumphant end of one of the most drama filled space missions since Apollo 13.
Albeit a robotic spacecraft mission rather than having humans on board, Hayabusa had suffered from a series of technical and communication failures following its attempt to retrieve samples from the surface of the asteroid called Itokawa.
The crippled spacecraft limped home on tiny thrusters, four years later than planned for its return to Earth and with JAXA scientists having no idea whether their probe had succeeded in collecting any samples from the asteroid’s boulder-strewn surface.
As with Apollo 13, the return to Earth came down to the abilities and inventiveness of the scientists and engineers who nursed the spacecraft home across billions of kilometres of space. The final result was the successful retrieval of grain-sized pieces of asteroid material to Earth.
The mission was keenly watched by the public in Japan and following Hayabusa’s return, two movies were made which highlighted the drama of the mission, much in the same way Apollo 13 was portrayed on the big screen.
Just like other movies today, there is now a sequel of sorts for JAXA’s space program, with Hayabusa 2 to be launched this month on a 5-year mission to collect samples from an asteroid known as ‘1999 JU3’.
Ground based analysis of the spectra of light from 1999 JU3 suggests that it is a C-type asteroid, containing rock, water (ice) and perhaps more organic matter (the building blocks of life) than other asteroids previously encountered.
The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will investigate the origins of this organic material and the water in the asteroid, how they might relate to our oceans and life here on Earth, and will further test the technologies required for future, even more ambitious space missions.
Unlike its predecessor, Hayabusa 2 will not just be attempting to collect surface samples, but also sub-surface materials that it will collect after hitting the surface with a 2 kilogram impactor that should blast out a small crater. Using a ‘touch and go’ approach the spacecraft will set down at the selected target points and drawup materials into a sample container for later return to Earth.
Hayabusa 2 will also complete a remote sensing survey of the asteroid’s surface during the 18 months it is expected to stay in orbit at 1999 JU3. It will also release a small boxed-shape ‘hopper’ rover called MASCOT onto the asteroid that, if successful, will provide additional in-situ analysis.
At the time of writing, Hayabusa 2, was due to launch from the Tanegashima Space Center at 3:22pm (AEDT) on Wednesday 3rd December, 2014. Supporting the launch activity will be the antennas of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex which will make contact with the spacecraft shortly after it has separated from its Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket and departs Earth-orbit.
Hayabusa 2 is expected to arrive at the yet-to-be-named 1999 JU3 in mid-2018 and return to Earth with a cache of asteroid samples in late 2020.
If successful, maybe it will prompt another sequel!
Kagoshima, a city of 605,000 people on the southern part of the island of Kyushu sits opposite Sakurajima, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. This was our first destination for the 2014 PULSE@Parkes in Japan tour.
Our hosts were Professor Handa and his students at Kagoshima University. On the trip from the airport to the city Sakuralima beclhed out a cloud of volcanic ash rising high into the air – quite a welcome! This was soon matched by dinner, shabu-shabu in the local style with thinly sliced sliced pork instead of beef. Absolutely tasty! Over dinner we met with several of the students and Handa-san encouraged them to practise their English in conversations with us.
On Saturday we some of the students drove us out to the 20m VERA radio telescope at Iriki. This facility is one of four antennas scattered across Japan and operated by NAOJ for VLBI observations. On last year’s tour we spent a few days at another of the telescopes at Mizusawa in northern Honshu. The facility is in a lovely setting high up on a ridge, adjacent to the university’s farm with cows grazing and across the road from a golf course. Luckily the telescope was not in use for a short period so we were able to go up on the antenna and inside to view the radio receivers. Students at Kagoshima use the telescope to study masers in the galaxy.
On the hill behind the VERA antenna is a 1m infrared/optical telescope operated by the university, primarily for the study of Mira variable stars.
After our telescope tours it was back into Kagoshima for a lovely sushi lunch by the waterfront. Sakurajima had erupted again that morning and ash had fallen over the city, coating cars and signs in a thin black film. We then headed inland and south to the Chiran Peace Museum. The nearby airfield, the southernmost on Kyushu was the place from which 1,035 pilots took off on tokkō operations, better known outside Japan as kamikaze missions. The sombre, reflective displays seek to record the relics and materials associated with the pilots and “disseminate the message of peace and ensure the tragedy of war is never repeated again.”
Our final stop of the day saw us buried in hot black sands by the sea at a local spa. Quite an unusual experience but one extremely popular with people coming far and wide for it. Dinner back in Kagoshima was a delicious tonkotsu ramen.
Sunday was the key day for out time in Kagoshima – the first of our PULSE@Parkes observing sessions. Twenty students from Kagoshima University, Kumamoto University, Tsurumaru High School and Kohan High School took part. An introductory talk about radio astronomy, Parkes and pulsars given by Rob Hollow and translated by Handa-san prepared the students to take control of the 64m Parkes radio telescope, the Dish. Dr Ryan Shannon then guided them through a two and a half hour observing run where each pair of students observed a few pulsars. They were then able to determine the distance to their pulsars using the online analysis module.
After the successful session we celebrated with another dinner, this time local seafood. Discussions ranged from jobs in Astronomy, Australia and where in Japan each of the students was from. Two of the students will be visiting Australia next year to work with some of our astronomers so it provided a handy chance to discuss what they should do and see.
On Monday Ryan gave a science talk on Cosmology with Pulsars for the undergraduate and post-graduate students at the university which generated a lot of questions. The Masters and PhD students are required to attend talks by visiting academics as part of their studies and it also extends their opportunity to listen to talks in English.
After a final farewell dinner, this time at a beef barbecue restaurant with another group of students we flew out the following day to Tokyo for more observing at NAOJ Mitaka on Wednesday. We loved out time in Kagoshima. Our hosts lavished us with hospitality and had a genuine enthusiasm for their region and astronomy. Hopefully we’ll be back soon!
PULSE@Parkes in Japan has been supported by the Australian Government through the Australia-Japan Foundation.
The European Space Agency is set to make a daring attempt to land the Philae probe on the surface of an icy comet.
The giant antenna dishes of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex are supporting the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, relaying data that the refrigerator-sized Philae probe has commenced its descent to the unknown surface of Comet 67-P Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Nearly 450 million kilometres from Earth and travelling at 18 kilometres per second, the bizarre ice, dust and rock strewn surface of the 5 kilometre long, 10 billion tonne comet called Churyumov-Gerasimenko will be stage for one of the most daring landing attempts in the history of space exploration.
After a 10-year journey, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft arrived at the comet (also known as Comet 67P) in August 2014. For the past several months Rosetta scientists have been using the spacecraft’s instruments to analyse and photograph the comet’s surface looking for a potential landing site. Several candidate locations were chosen but one, ‘Site J’ seemed to present the best chance for a successful touchdown of Rosetta’s ‘Philae’ probe on the comet’s unexplored surface.
Site J, now called Agilkia (after an island in the Nile River), however, only offers the instrument-laden Philae lander a 75% chance of a safe touchdown at 3.02am (AEDST) on Thursday 13th November. Low gravity, car-sized boulders, 30 metre cliffs, deep holes and an unknown surface composition are just some hazards that the unaided robotic probe will have to face.
Keeping an eye on events as they unfold will be the giant antenna dishes of NASA’s Deep Space Network and those of the European Space Agency, which have tracked the spacecraft throughout its 10 year adventure.
At the CSIRO-managed, Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), Deep Space Station 34 (DSS34) will listen in on relayed signals from the Rosetta mothercraft as it releases the Philae probe on a 7 hour descent towards the comet’s surface. Along with ESA’s New Norcia antenna near Perth, separation of the two craft will be confirmed late Wednesday evening (12th November). DSS34 will provide ongoing back-up communication coverage between the Rosetta/Philae spacecraft and the anxious science team located at ESA’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
As the Earth continues to turn and the spacecraft fall out of Australia’s view, the Canberra and New Norcia antennas will hand over to sister stations in Spain and Argentina for the last leg of the journey and the historic touchdown signal on Thursday morning (13th November).
The European Space Agency has been doing a remarkable job engaging the public in this great adventure. You can following along with the events of Rosetta and Philae’s great adventure on their mission blog. ESA is also broadcasting live coverage of the descent and landing. Updates also via Twitter – Rosetta | Philae