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Hearing cosmic radiowaves live for first time, scientists could solve years-long mystery

The mysterious ‘blitzar’ has been heard since 2007, but scientists have caught it live for the first time

Andrew Griffin
Monday 19 January 2015 18:00
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A time-lapse photo of the Middle Drum facility of the Telescope Array, a $25 million cosmic ray observatory that sprawls across the desert west of Delta, Utah.
A time-lapse photo of the Middle Drum facility of the Telescope Array, a $25 million cosmic ray observatory that sprawls across the desert west of Delta, Utah.

As live performances go, a mysterious pulse of radio waves emanating from deep in the universe has to be up with the greats. And scientists have finally caught it.

The blitzars last only about a millisecond — during which time they give out as much energy as the sun does in a million years, according to the New Scientist — and have only ever been heard on historical data.

The source must be "huge, cataclysmic and up to 5.5 billion light years away," one scientist told the New Scientist.

But a team of scientists from Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia has identified one of them live, as it happened.

Nobody really knows where the blitzars come from — a top contender is a huge neutron star that should have given way to a black hole, but didn’t — but the new findings are likely to help scientists find out.

When the blitzar was spotted by a team led by Emily Petroff, other telescopes were turned towards the source, helping to study the aftereffects. They didn’t see any afterglow — ruling out some of the possible sources such as a supernova.

Scientists hope that they will soon discover another blitzar in a different frequency range. That will allow them to conclusively associate it with something and will help pin it down to a specific source.

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