PLUTO: T-20 Days and Counting

Australia’s key role in NASA’s New Horizons mission

Historic Encounter: Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon. Image: NASA

Historic Encounter: Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon. Image: NASA

After a voyage of 3,443 days and travelling nearly 5 billion kilometres from home, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is now just 20 days away from its historic encounter with the distant world of Pluto.

The science team located at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas have been dreaming of this moment since plans for the mission were first hatched back in 1989.

Key to the success of this mission are the powerful, yet ultra-sensitive communication dishes at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex – a part of the Deep Space Network (DSN) – one of three NASA tracking stations located in Australia, Spain and USA.

Listening for Whispers: Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex.

Listening for Whispers: Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex.

In Australia, our tracking station is managed on NASA’s behalf by the CSIRO. Operated by an all Australian team of engineers, technicians and spacecraft communication experts, the station is located at Tidbinbilla just outside of Canberra.

Just like their counterparts at APL, SwRI, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the team at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) are ready for the July 14 encounter with Pluto. CDSCC has been following the entire voyage of New Horizons since its launch on January 19, 2006 and are set to play a key role in the one of the most anticipated planetary encounters in space exploration history.

CDSCC has been tracking the New Horizons spacecraft since its launch in January 2006. Image: Canberra Times/Fairfax

CDSCC has been tracking the New Horizons spacecraft since its launch in January 2006. Image: Canberra Times/Fairfax

To start its prime mission, the New Horizons spacecraft has ventured further than any other mission. It has encountered asteroids, flown past the giant planet Jupiter and braved the cold depths of space, ‘beeping’ home with weekly beacons to confirm that it was still alive and spending time in ‘computer’ hibernation for much of the journey.

Once at Pluto however, it will not have time to rest.

BUSY DAY: The New Horizons spacecraft has a lot of work to complete during its close encounter with Pluto. Image: NASA/Eyes on the Solar System

BUSY DAY: The New Horizons spacecraft has a lot of work to complete during its close encounter with Pluto. Image: NASA/Eyes on the Solar System

Not much larger than a grand piano, the New Horizons spacecraft does not have the fuel to slow down and go into orbit around or land on Pluto. Instead, after its nine and a half year journey, it will get less than one day close-up with Pluto, to learn everything it can about the dwarf planet and its family of five known moons.

Rocketing through the Pluto system at over 52,000 kilometres per hour, New Horizons will be using every instrument, sensor and camera it has to intensively study these unexplored worlds.

After such a long journey, the short encounter period places enormous pressure on the science team to ensure that everything goes right with the spacecraft and its instruments. It also heightens the focus of the CSIRO communications team in Canberra who will be working throughout the encounter period to ensure the spacecraft’s radio signal is received on Earth and that none of the valuable data is lost.

The radio signal from the New Horizons spacecraft is incredibly weak by the time it is received on Earth. The 12-15 watt transmission is not a tight beam. As it travels through space, the radio waves spread out, becoming thinner and more diffuse. By the time it has travelled across the 4.8 billion kilometres of void, the spacecraft’s signals – which at the speed of light have taken 4.5 hours to reach us – are received at CDSCC’s antenna dishes at signal strength of 4 x 10-19 watts (that’s 0.00000000000000000004 of a watt!) Literally, a whisper from deep space.

BIG DISH: CDSCC's 70-metre antenna dish, Deep Space Station 43 is keeping an 'ear' on New Horizons.

BIG DISH: CDSCC’s 70-metre antenna dish, Deep Space Station 43 is keeping an ‘ear’ on New Horizons.

The incredible sensitivity of CDSCC’s big dish, Deep Space Station 43 (DSS43) will be used as the prime antenna to receive these signals and collect from New Horizons some of the first close-up images of the dwarf planet.

CDSCC will also be working side-by-side with its sister stations to complete a critical science experiment at Pluto called REX (Radio science EXperiment). By transmitting a powerful radio signal towards Pluto and having it received on-board the New Horizons’ REX instrument, scientists will be able to determine more about the density and temperature range of Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere, and find out whether its largest moon, Charon also has an atmosphere.

The precise timing of the transmission will coincide with the moment the spacecraft starts passing behind the dwarf planet from Earth’s point of view. Knowing exactly when the signal is received at the spacecraft, lost when it passes behind the dwarf planet and regained again when Earth is in view, will allow scientists to increase our knowledge of the size of Pluto down to an accuracy of just a few metres.

PLUTO: Images from New Horizons' LORRI camera are revealing intriguing features on Pluto's surface. Image: NASA/APL/SwRI

PLUTO: Images from New Horizons’ LORRI camera are revealing intriguing features on Pluto’s surface. Image: NASA/APL/SwRI

The countdown continues, and Pluto is getting bigger in New Horizons’ cameras every day. Recent pictures received on Earth are already showing a world with wide variation of light and dark features. What these turn out to be is just a small part of the many mysteries that New Horizons hopes to answer.

What will New Horizons find? What questions will be answered and what new mysteries raised?

INTO THE DARK: New Horizons' journey continues beyond Pluto. Stay Tuned. Image: NASA/APL/SwRI

INTO THE DARK: New Horizons’ journey continues beyond Pluto. Stay Tuned. Image: NASA/APL/SwRI

One thing is certain, the CSIRO team at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex will be playing its part. Just like the mission scientists who have waited so long for this day, CDSCC is counting the days, hours minutes and seconds remaining until the time of New Horizons’ closest approach to the realm of Pluto and its moons.

Put it in your diary, the moment arrives at 9:49.57pm (AEST) on Tuesday, July 14th, 2015.

T minus 20 days and counting.

For further information:
The New Horizons mission – visit its website or follow on Twitter.
See what the antennas of the Deep Space Network are doing 24/7 via DSN Now.
Follow the New Horizons Pluto encounter with Eyes on the Solar System.


Death in the 15th century

Joe Callingham. Photo: CAASTRO

PhD student Joe Callingham. Joe is co-supervised by the University of Sydney and CSIRO, and is also affiliated with CAASTRO, the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics. Photo: CAASTRO

A galaxy that ‘died’ around the same time as England’s King Richard III may help astronomers improve their cosmic accounting.

According to PhD student Joe Callingham, this galaxy, a strong radio source called PKS B0008-421, gave up the ghost just 550 years ago — about the time the Wars of the Roses were raging in England.

In astronomical terms, that’s the blink of an eye.

Armoured knights fighting a battle

The Battle of Barnet (1471), a key clash during the Wars of the Roses. Richard III was killed in 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth. (Public domain image.)

PKS B0008-421 was discovered with our Parkes radio telescope in the 1960s.

At first glance, it’s a completely boring source. Just a dot in the sky, it has doesn’t seem to have changed since it was discovered: not grown stronger or weaker, or changed shape or size.

But an unchanging source like this is actually really valuable to radio astronomers: they use it as a reference, a calibrator, to monitor the performance of their telescopes.

From time to time calibrators have to be observed in their own right, to check that they have not, in fact, changed. So there are lots of observations of PKS B0008-421, dating back to the 1960s.

Joe plotted up this historical data, plus more recent observations made with our Compact Array (which detects short radio waves) and the Murchison Widefield Array (which detects longer radio waves).

And he found something interesting.

Five white telescope dishes on a bright, sunny day

CSIRO’s Compact Array radio telescope. (Image: D. Smyth).

PKS B0008-421 is thought to be a baby radio galaxy — small, but with an active black hole pumping out radio-emitting particles.

It has a very sharply peaked radio spectrum, and so is classified as a gigahertz peaked spectrum or GPS source.

Since the 1960s astronomers have had a model, an explanation, for how GPS sources work and the sharply peaked curve their radio spectrum follows.

But Joe found that the conventional model didn’t fit PKS B0008-421 as well as an alternative one.*

This could shake up astronomers’ ideas about the age of GPS sources and the environments they live in.

What’s more, Joe could make the models fit the data only by assuming that the galaxy’s central black hole had stopped spitting out high-energy particles about 550 years ago.

In other words, the black hole has ‘turned off’. PKS B0008-421 is now slowly dying.

Once a source like this has turned off, it will fade rapidly — unless it is cocooned in dense gas. We think PKS B0008-421 has this dense gas.

New low-frequency radio telescopes such as the Murchison Widefield Array should be able to pick out more dying, gas-swaddled sources like PKS B0008-421.

The Murchison Widefield Array. Photo: Curtin University

The Murchison Widefield Array. Photo: Curtin University

What does this have to do with ‘cosmic accounting’?

As we said, PKS B0008-421 is thought to be a baby radio galaxy.

If all went well, this galaxy and others like it would eventually grow into giant radio galaxies. These can be as big as a whole bunch of galaxies the size of our Milky Way.

The problem is, we can find many more babies than we can giants.

If we could find many radio galaxies that have died young, we might be able to reconcile the numbers of small, young radio galaxies and old, giant ones.

The giant radio galaxy Centaurus A, to scale on the sky. The Compact Array image of it is the most detailed ever made. I. Feain, T. Cornwell, R.D. Ekers, R. Morganti, N. Junkes. ATCA photo: S. Amy

The giant radio galaxy Centaurus A, to scale on the sky. The Compact Array image of it is the most detailed ever made. I. Feain, T. Cornwell, R.D. Ekers, R. Morganti, N. Junkes. ATCA photo: S. Amy

To get a handle on what’s happening inside galaxies like PKS B0008-421 — how they make their radio waves — we need to know how dense the hydrogen gas inside them is. This problem should be licked by a survey such as FLASH, which will run on our ASKAP telescope.

Joe recently presented his work at a meeting in Italy.

An elevated view of our ASKAP antennas at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. Credit: CSIRO.

An elevated view of our ASKAP antennas at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. Credit: CSIRO.

—–

*Note for nerds: the conventional model to explain the radio emission is synchrotron self-absorption; the alternative model is free-free absorption.


Uncovering the mystery of stellar nurseries

Claire-Elise Green wants to time travel. She wants to peer into the stellar nursery of the cosmos and understand how stars are formed, in their infancy, billions of years ago. To do this she needs access to multi-billion dollar telescopes, astronomical amounts of data and the time to work with the best and brightest in the field. Not something you can just Google.

Read more on our news@csiro blog: Uncovering the mystery of stellar nurseries.


A sneak peek at the first science from ASKAP

By Helen Sim

It’s been a long journey, but the first scientific results from our Australian SKA Pathfinder telescope are being unveiled in Melbourne this week.

Carried out with six ASKAP antennas used by the team for commissioning activities, these early results have been written up and will appear as scientific papers over the coming months. But astronomers at the OzSKA meeting are getting a sneak peek.

Three key results promise success for some of the big projects planned for ASKAP.

An elevated view of our ASKAP antennas at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. Credit: CSIRO.

An elevated view of our ASKAP antennas at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory. Credit: CSIRO.

Dark clouds, silver lining

In the first project, CSIRO astronomer Paolo Serra and his colleagues have found that a galaxy called IC 5270 has a couple of shady companions.

They appear to be dark (starless) clouds of hydrogen gas (HI), each with more than a billion solar masses of the stuff. In fact the clouds account for a third of the total HI mass associated with IC 5270.

It’s likely that this gas was stripped out of IC 5270 by gravity when other galaxies passed close by.

Dark clouds of gas (the two upper blobs) near the galaxy IC 5270.

Dark clouds of gas (the two upper blobs) near the galaxy IC 5270.

Dark clouds like the ones near IC 5270 have been found before. But the finding is important for ASKAP’s forthcoming WALLABY survey, which is designed to detect HI over three-quarters of the sky and so study how galaxies evolve. It shows that WALLABY will have the sensitivity and resolution to establish (or rule out) evidence for gas stripping for thousands of galaxies, giving us a better handle on how galaxies change over time.

A part-time pulsar

Another team, led by CSIRO astronomer George Hobbs, has been using ASKAP to follow up an unusual pulsar (one of those small, spinning stars that produce regular radio pulsars).

This pulsar, called J1107–5907, spends a good deal of its time ‘turned off’, or at least not producing pulses that we can detect.

Hobbs’ team observed the sky around the pulsar for 13 hours, taking a snapshot every two minutes. The data were processed with a ‘pipeline’ developed for a survey of transient sources, rather than the processing software usually used for pulsar surveys.

J1107–5907 showed up nicely, suggesting that ASKAP’s going to be an ideal telescope for discovering these part-time pulsars. But the way to find them will be with a survey for transient sources, such as VAST (Variables and Slow Transients — one of ten large ASKAP Survey Science projects planned for ASKAP), not a traditional pulsar survey that looks for a regular train of pulses.

Only a few intermittent pulsars are known but many more may be waiting to be discovered.

A well-behaved pulsar (animation). Credit: CAASTRO / Swinburne Astronomy Productions.

Dip shows galaxies are down the road

A third piece of work has shown that ASKAP will be able to detect galaxies other telescopes can’t.

A team led by CSIRO’s James Allison detected a five-billion-year-old radio signal from the distant galaxy PKS B1740-517. Stamped on it is the ‘imprint’ of hydrogen gas (HI) that it travelled through on its way to Earth. This gas absorbs some of the original radio emission, creating a little dip or nick in the signal.

The dip is tiny and at many observatories there is so much radio ‘noise’ that it wouldn’t be seen. But ASKAP’s home, the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, is so beautifully ‘radio quiet’ that the dip stands out clearly.

Most galaxies have lots of HI and these absorption dips are an excellent way to detect them. The trouble has been knowing where to look, especially how far out. But the signal from PKS B1740-517 was found in a ‘blind’ (unguided) search, which opens up the whole field.

In particular, it means that one of ASKAP’s forthcoming large surveys, FLASH (First Large Absorption Survey in HI), is set to find thousands of galaxies. Moreover, they’ll be ones that are five to eight billion years old. These should help us understand why the rate of star formation in the Universe fell after its peak ten billion years ago.

Galaxies, here we come. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team.

Galaxies, here we come. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team.

If you’re interested in finding out more of what the astronomy community is talking about this week at the OzSKA meeting, follow along on Twitter using #OzSKA or see the CAASTRO site for more detail.


50 Years in Deep Space

CDSCC 50 years logo

Fifty years ago, speaking on the value of space exploration, the then Prime Minister of Australia, (Sir) Robert Menzies, in an address to staff and honoured guests at the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Instrumentation Facility (TDSIF), said:

“The stretching out of the borders of our own technological knowledge is so important, …we perhaps direct too much attention to some distant end result and too little to the fact that in this century, increasingly in this century, the country that is backward in these fields will be backward in a hundred ways that may not appear to be closely connected with what is going on. Therefore this is a great step forward, a notable event in this technological period of our lives.”

Prime Minister Robert Menzies at the opening of Tidbinbilla DSIF42. 19 March 1965. Image:CDSCC

Prime Minister Robert Menzies at the opening of Tidbinbilla DSIF42. 19 March 1965. Image:CDSCC

‘A great step forward’ was exactly what was taken at the official opening of the TDSIF, now known as the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) on the 19th March 1965.

A news clipping about the Australia-US agreement, from the Canberra Times, 7 March 1963. Via: Trove Digitised Newspapers.

A news clipping about the Australia-US agreement, from the Canberra Times, 7 March 1963. Via: Trove Digitised Newspapers.

Those first steps have since seen both human and robotic space explorers take great strides across the Solar System and beyond. Throughout the last five decades it has been the role of CDSCC to provide uninterrupted, two-way radio contact with these voyages into deep space.

CDSCC is a part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN). Three tracking stations, equidistantly located around the world and featuring giant radio dish antennas that relay commands and receive data from dozens of spacecraft exploring the Sun, planets, moons, comets and asteroids of our solar system.

As you might imagine, a lot has happened in the last 50 years. The first interplanetary probes have lead to a flotilla of sophisticated robotic spaceprobes now traversing the surfaces of or orbiting around virtually every major celestial body in our region of space.

The control room for DSS42, the station’s original antenna which started life as a 26-m dish antenna, and expanded to 34-m for later missions. Dozens of operators were on duty at any one time monitoring individual systems. Today a centralised control room operates all the station’s antennas with a team of only 5 or 6, thanks to technological progress.

The control room for DSS42, the station’s original antenna which started life as a 26-m dish antenna, and expanded to 34-m for later missions. Dozens of operators were on duty at any one time monitoring individual systems. Today a centralised control room operates all the station’s antennas with a team of only 5 or 6, thanks to technological progress.

The early technology, with buildings full of refrigerator-sized computers and consoles full of dials, gauges, switches and buttons have become the high-speed computer processors and multitasking digital screens of today.

The first antennas were relatively small, single-purposed dishes that have now given way to the massive, super-sensitive, multi-receiver and multi-spacecraft capable antennas that daily transmit to and receive from 40 missions representing more than 20 nations exploring the cosmos.

The Tidbinbilla valley in 1965.

The Tidbinbilla valley in 1965.

For CDSCC at Tidbinbilla, the valley has undergone massive changes as well. When opened in 1965, the site had a single antenna and a few of buildings to support its operation. In 2015, five dishes dominate the landscape, with a sixth antenna currently under construction.

The Tidbinbilla valley to 2015.

The Tidbinbilla valley to 2015.

CDSCC has been involved in many of space exploration’s greatest moments, from receiving the first images of NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft as it made the first close-up flyby of the planet Mars in July 1965, through to the recent landing of the European Space Agency’s Philae probe on the surface of Comet 67P Churuymov-Gerasimenko.

The tracking station supported every Apollo lunar mission and handled telemetry, command and control communications for the landings of NASA’s twin Mars Rover – Spirit and Opportunity – as well as the dramatic ‘skycrane’ arrival of the Curiosity rover on the red planet.

Leaving our Sun’s influence behind, the two Voyager spacecraft are still in contact with Earth through Tidbinbilla’s giant 70-metre dish, Deep Space Station 43, the largest steerable antenna dish in the southern hemisphere.

Tidbinbilla is always making headlines. Image: Canberra Times/Fairfax

Tidbinbilla is always making headlines. Image: Canberra Times/Fairfax

Look up a mission into deep space (the Moon and beyond) and CDSCC has probably played a major role in its success.

Even now, the tracking complex is gearing up for the July arrival of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft which will take humanity’s first close up view of Pluto and will help bring the world some of the very first images of that distant world.

New Horizons' flies past Pluto in this artists' rendition. Image: NASA/JHUAPL

New Horizons’ flies past Pluto in this artists’ rendition. Image: NASA/JHUAPL

It’s been a remarkable 50 years but none of the astounding technological feats would have been possible without the tireless dedication of the hundreds of men and women who have worked at the Complex.

Some have spent only a few short years there, while others have worked for 20, 30 and 40 years in the business of spacecraft tracking and communications. The true pioneers who have taken us from the days of grainy, black and white images of the Moon, to the high resolution, 3D colour imagery we enjoy today from places like Mars and Saturn.

It’s their dedication that makes space exploration possible. Next time you watch a spacecraft land on Mars at 3am in the morning on Christmas day (and CDSCC has done that), know that it took a skilled team of Aussie engineers, technicians, antenna operators and support staff to do it.

People of CDSCC

By the way, since 2010, that team have been all CSIRO employees – every day making the impossible, possible.

While the feats of the last 50 years have been incredible, it will be the feats, as yet unimagined, of the next fifty years that will continue to define the story of this remarkable facility.

TRACKING: Deep Space Station 43 - 70 metres wide and 22-storeys high at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex Image: K.McDonnell

TRACKING: Deep Space Station 43 – 70 metres wide and 22-storeys high at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex Image: K.McDonnell

Follow CDSCC on Twitter @CanberraDSN


5 Years Later – The Sky Is No Longer the Limit

NEW VISTAS: Deep Space Station 35 will operate for many decades. What future discoveries it might make, we can't even begin to imagine. Credit: Adam McGrath

NEW VISTAS: Deep Space Station 35 will operate for many decades. What future discoveries it might make, we can’t even begin to imagine. Credit: Adam McGrath

Exactly 5 years to the day from its original ground-breaking ceremony in 2010, the newest antenna dish in NASA’s Deep Space Network was officially commissioned  on 25th February 2015, at the CSIRO-managed, Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC).

3,2,1... The ribbon cutting marked the official commissioning of the new Deep Space Network antenna.

3,2,1… The ribbon cutting marked the official commissioning of the new Deep Space Network antenna.

Hosted by CDSCC Director, Dr Ed Kruzins, VIP guests included Mr Badri Younes and Mr Pete Vrotsos from NASA’s Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) division, and Dr David Williams, Executive Director CSIRO National Facilities & Collections and Dr Lewis Ball, Director of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science. They were joined by representatives from government, industry and CSIRO-CDSCC staff at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to usher the new antenna into deep space operations.

CONGRATULATIONS: NASA's Mr Badri Younes (left) shakes hands with CSIRO's Dr Dave Williams following the ribbon cutting with CDSCC Director, Dr Ed Kruzins (2nd left) and NASA's Mr Pete Vrotsos (right) at the commissioning of Deep Space Station 35.

CONGRATULATIONS: NASA’s Mr Badri Younes (left) shakes hands with CSIRO’s Dr Dave Williams following the ribbon cutting with CDSCC Director, Dr Ed Kruzins (2nd left) and NASA’s Mr Pete Vrotsos (right) at the commissioning of Deep Space Station 35.

The new dish, Deep Space Station 35 incorporates the latest in Beam Waveguide technology that increases the sensitivity and capacity for tracking, commanding and receiving data from spacecraft located billions of kilometres away across the Solar System. NASA has invested $55 million in the first of the new antennas and is currently investing an equal amount in a second dish – Deep Space Station 36 – due to come online in late 2016.

GIANT: People are turned into small toys against the enormous size of Deep Space Station 35's 34-metre dish.

GIANT: People are turned into small toys against the enormous size of Deep Space Station 35’s 34-metre dish.

NEW ERA: NASA's Dr Badri Younes speaking on the future of space communications and journeys to Mars.

NEW ERA: NASA’s Dr Badri Younes speaking on the future of space communications and journeys to Mars.

“Through NASA, Australia and the United States have worked together in the exploration of space for over 50 years,” Mr Younes said.

“We broke ground on this new antenna project in 2010 and it is of immense pride and satisfaction that we have now reached this milestone and that the antenna will now be able to break new ground on the frontiers opening up to us in space.”

GROUNDBREAKING: VIPs from NASA, JPL, the US Embassy and CSIRO, break ground on DSS35 on 25th February 2010.

GROUNDBREAKING: VIPs from NASA, JPL, the US Embassy and CSIRO, break ground on DSS35 on 25th February 2010.

The milestone comes one day before the 55th anniversary of the signing of the original space communication and tracking agreement signed between Australia and the United States on the 26th February 1960. It is a partnership that has that has led to many historic firsts and breakthrough discoveries – the first flybys of Mercury and Venus, the vital communication link and television coverage of the first Moonwalk, robotic rover landings on and amazing views from the surface of Mars, the first ‘close-ups’ of the giant outer planets and first-time encounters with worlds such as Pluto.

FAVOURITE PHOTOBOMB: During construction of DSS35, our cameras caught this image which went viral online.

FAVOURITE PHOTOBOMB: During construction of DSS35, our cameras caught this image which went viral online.

DAY OR NIGHT: Deep Space Station 35 will be operating 24/7 to help make discoveries in deep space.

DAY OR NIGHT: Deep Space Station 35 will be operating 24/7 to help make discoveries in deep space.

What future discoveries will be made through Deep Space Station 35, no one can really imagine, but with this new ear on the universe one thing is certain – the sky is no longer the limit.


Cosmic radio burst caught red-handed

A radio antenna at night, showing a yellow graphic line spiralling into the dish from a flash of light in space; representative of receiving the polarised signal from the new 'fast radio burst' detected by CSIRO's Parkes radio telescope.

CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope has detected a new ‘fast radio burst’. This is the first ‘live’ detection of one of these mysterious bursts. Credit: Swinburne Astronomy Productions.

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.

The evidence
‘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.

The suspense
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).


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 389 other followers