What’s it like studying fast radio bursts hundreds of lightyears away?

Fast radio bursts are astronomical phenomena not yet well-understood. They are transient pulses, emanating from unidentified high-energy astrophysical processes. To learn more about FRBs, we spoke to Deborah Good, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She explained what it’s like to study FRBs and shared her thoughts on interesting areas of astronomy research.

What are fast radio bursts and what do they teach us about the cosmos?

Fast radio bursts are short bursts of radio light, thousandths of a second long. They aren’t like light we can see – in fact, with the telescope I work on, we’re observing them at roughly the same frequency your cell phone uses to connect to the Internet. They aren’t by any means the brightest things in the night sky, but they are bright enough that we can see them very clearly even though they’re very far away. FRBs come from outside the Milk Way. We recently pinpointed one, FRB 180916.J0158+65, to a galaxy about 500,000 lightyears away, and it’s not the furthest known FRB. 

It’s hard to know exactly what they teach us until we better understand what they are, but they will likely help us learn more about the objects that produce them. These objects are likely some kind of neutron star or black hole. A neutron star is an extremely dense “zombie star” left behind after a supernova. 

How did you come to study fast radio bursts?

I came to study FRBs via the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME for short). I was working on the main hydrogen intensity mapping effort with CHIME for my MSc project, and I wanted a bit of a change. I also wanted something more data-focused instead of something focused on theory or telescope engineering. Studying FRBs fit that bill. Along the way, I’ve really come to enjoy working with this fast-paced, exciting science.

What do you think some of the most interesting areas of astronomy research are at the moment?

One thing I think is really exciting in astronomy at the moment is the entire world of big data astronomy. For maybe the first time ever, we’re constrained by our ability to analyze data instead of our ability to collect it. That’s just going to continue as large telescopes like the Square Kilometre Array and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory come online.