Arecibo, Puerto Rico (CBS TAMPA) — A succinct blip of radio waves detected from far beyond the Milky Way Galaxy amid deep space has left scientists saying they “really have no handle on” the mysterious “fast radio burst.”

The split-second burst of radio waves discovered through the Arecibo radio telescope has given scientists new evidence of the rare, mysterious pulses emanating from deep outer space – well beyond the ends of the galaxy. Published July 10 in The Astrophysical Journal, the “fast radio burst” is the first of similar sounds to be detected by an installation other than the Parkes radio telescope in Australia.

The Arecibo Observatory is the world’s largest single-aperture telescope located in Puerto Rico. The radio telescope has been featured in numerous movies and television shows including 1995’s James Bond film “Goldeneye.”

“Our result is important because it eliminates any doubt that these radio bursts are truly of cosmic origin,” said Victoria Kaspi, an astrophysics professor at McGill University in Montreal and principal investigator for the pulsar-survey project that detected this fast radio burst. “The radio waves show every sign of having come from far outside our galaxy – a really exciting prospect.”

Although exact origins for the radio wave bursts are still an enigma for astrophysicists, proposed possibilities include evaporating black holes, merging neutron stars, or flares from extremely powerful deep-space magnetic fields.

“It was a single pulse – additional observations of the same direction on the sky have shown nothing,” said James Cordes, Cornell professor of astronomy and an author on the paper. “The nature of these bursts had been in doubt until recently, and the discovery at Arecibo cements the case that they are astrophysical, rather than some unique form of radio interference at Parkes.”

The scientists determined that the pulse traveled from far beyond the Milky Way Galaxy as they have ruled out that it was simply some form of distorted cosmic noise – but the few-thousandths-of-a-second radio bursts still baffle scientists.

Post-doctoral researcher Laura Spitler discovered the burst as she culled through 2012 data: “Once I saw the characteristic signature of an astrophysical burst, I immediately looked at the data in various ways to convince myself – and everyone else – that it was real,” Spitler said. “The process is not glamorous.”

“We really have no handle on what they are,” Spitler explained. “Scientists are highly skeptical of such discoveries … [that] all of the bursts up until now had been discovered by the Parkes telescope was a cause of concern. Now, with the discovery of a burst from Arecibo, we are more confident that FRBs are astrophysical phenomena, and discovering and classifying them should be a priority of radio astronomical observatories in the future.”

Benjamin Fearnow

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