The Hubble Space Telescope has pinpointed the source of the farthest and most powerful fast radio burst (FRB) ever detected, according to new research published this week. The signal originated from a group of seven interacting galaxies over 8 billion lightyears away.
Farthest FRB Originated Billions of Lightyears Away
FRBs are intensely strong bursts of radio waves that flash for just a millisecond, but can emit as much energy in that moment as the Sun does in 10,000 years. Most have been traced back to individual galaxies, but this newly analyzed FRB came from a region where galaxies are merging together.
“We think the galaxies are part of a grouping of seven galaxies that is relatively compact,” said astronomer Alexandra Mannings of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who led the Hubble study. “The galaxies are very likely to be triggering each other periodically to produce these giant bursts.”
The signal, labeled FRB 20201124A, was picked up in 2020 by NASA’s Chandra X-ray telescope. After analyzing Hubble images and data spanning ultraviolet to near-infrared light, researchers pinpointed the source to a blob-like formation of thousands of galaxies.
|8.7 billion lightyears
|Quadrillion times more than Sun
“The Hubble data enabled us to identify the host galaxies, characterize the galaxies, and figure out where they reside in the universe,” Mannings said.
Merging Galaxies Theory Offer Explanation
The grouped galaxies are estimated to have started merging over 13 billion years ago in the early universe, forming a compact cluster. The theory is that their interactions trigger violent black hole activity, which releases intense energy emissions detected as FRBs millions or billions of years later on Earth.
“Hubble’s ultraviolet, optical, and near-infrared images reveal a chaotic scene filled with galaxies smashed together and distorted by gravity,” said UCLA astronomer Eric Gawiser, a co-author of the study. “The Hubble images reveal they are doing a crazy dance driven by the gravitational forces of the interacting galaxies.”
Implications for Understanding FRBs and the Early Universe
The ability to pinpoint FRB sources is key to understanding these mysterious signals. Tracing this record-breaker back 8 billion years provides clues about the early universe and genesis of galaxy groups.
“Now we know just where to point our telescopes and be able to look at these objects in order to figure out exactly how they make these huge flashes of energy,” Gawiser said.
While most documented FRBs have emanated from single galaxies, Mannings said this grouping of interacting galaxies seems to be a FRB factory with ideal conditions for generating repeated bursts.
“This detection pushes back to when the universe was only a quarter of its current age, and suggests that the earliest galaxy groups were sites of significant galaxy assembly, not unlike our own Milky Way’s neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud,” Mannings summarized.
What’s Next as Mystery Continues
Many questions remain about the source and workings of FRBs as astronomers analyze this and other samples. With the James Webb Space Telescope now online, researchers expect more detailed imagery and insights to come on not only this galaxy cluster but the wider population of FRBs detected across the universe.
For now, this Hubble discovery has brought them one step closer by tracing the farthest FRB home to date – a chaotic, dancing cluster of galaxies from the ancient universe.
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