A Single Moment: Was it real?

Yesterday a fascinating press release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory crossed my inbox. In a re-analysis of 480 hours of data from taken with the 210-foot Parkes radio telescope in Australia, astronomers found a single 5 millisecond burst that resembled nothing anyone has ever seen before. It shifted in frequency from higher radio frequencies to lower frequency in a way that indicated the data may have come from an object 3 billion light years away.

This is a single data point from a single telescope.

But it’s kinda cool.

One of the problems with astronomy is you can’t look at the whole sky the whole time, so rare events are rarely seen. If a galaxy has 1 supernova every 100 years, than if you look at 100 galaxies you’ll see 1 supernova a year.

But it is hard to watch that many objects for that long continuously.

Astronomers on this project, lead by Duncan Lorimer, note that 100s of these events could be going off somewhere in the sky each day, but because this object only gave off light for 5 millisecond (and it took a 210-ft telescope to see this first one), our chances of looking at the right place at the right instance with a big enough telescope… Well, clearly the probability isn’t zero, but it is very very low.

But this all assumes this was a real event.

And we don’t exactly know where to look to try and find the same event.

Was it real?

The best way to find out if it is real is to re-analyze all the old data that is out there and see if we captured a previous burst at some point in time. Maybe, if we search hard enough, we’ll find a second burst, from hopefully a second telescope (so the perfect electrically glitch can be ruled out). And if we have two, the theoriests can really get going. So far, 1 point has generated 1 press release containing 2 theories.

It’s not every day that something totally new gets noted. If this was an evaporating black hole, the next generation of more sensitive radio telescopes may be able to detect these things popping off all over the sky and this first burst could be remembered in the same way we remember the first gamma ray burst.

But then again – it could have been nothing.

It should be noted this data point was found by an undergrad who was doing the boring re-analysis of the data. Searching for more data points is a perfect undergrad task. This could be one of those neat moments when a great discovery comes from the efforts of someone who is still daily asking, “So why do I have to learn calculas?” Imagine being able to put on your graduate school application, “I discovered evaporating black holes…” The student on this project, WVU undergraduate David Narkevi, just might get that opportunity.

2 Comments

  1. Doc Kinne
    Sep 30, 2007

    Just like you Pamela, but thank you anyway – I didn’t know David’s name until just now.

  2. Stephen
    Oct 8, 2007

    Doesn’t it’s short length tell us that, if it’s real, it’s a fairly small object?

    It takes about 1200 hours to discover a comet.

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