Over 500 fast radio bursts captured by the CHIME telescope in its first 12 months

It's challenging to capture a fast radio burst or FRB. To capture an FRB, a radio telescope has to be pointed in just the right direction. FRBs are bright flashes of light that register in the radio band of the electromagnetic spectrum and only exist for a few milliseconds before they vanish without a trace. Scientists have spotted FRBs in our galaxy and distributed throughout the universe.

The exact origins of FRBs are unknown, and the appearance of the mysterious events is unpredictable. The first FRB was discovered in 2007, and in that time, radio astronomers have only captured 140 bursts using radio telescopes. That all changed when a large stationary radio telescope went live in British Columbia called CHIME, meaning Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment.

CHIME has dramatically increased the number of captured FRBs, capturing 535 new bursts during its first year of operation between 2018 and 2019. Scientists working with the CHIME Collaboration include researchers from MIT, and the team has assembled the newly discovered signals into the telescope's first FRB catalog. That catalog will be presented this week at the American Astronomical Society Meeting.

Researchers working with the telescopes say the catalog significantly expands the current library of known FRBs and is helping researchers discover clues about the properties of the events. The newly discovered bursts appeared to fall into two distinct classes of those that repeat and those that don't. Scientists have identified 18 FRB sources that burst repeatedly while the rest seem to be one-offs.

Interestingly, the repeating bursts look different each time, with each burst lasting slightly longer and emitting more focused radio frequency bursts from single non-repeating FRBs. Observations suggest that repeaters and one-also arise from separate mechanisms and astrophysical sources. With additional observation, astronomers hope to be able to pin down the origins of the FRBs.