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Duncan Lorimer says he will never forget the day in 2007 when he stumbled upon the first bolt from the blue. The West Virginia University astronomer had tasked an undergraduate student, David Narkovic, with combing through pulsar survey data from Parkes Observatory in Australia, and one day Narkovic walked into Lorimer’s office with an unusual signal unlike anything anyone had seen or predicted before. It was one of the brightest astronomical sources in the sky for a scant few milliseconds, and it bore signatures of an origin beyond the galaxy. “I was stunned,” recalls Lorimer. “Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of it.”

Lorimer had discovered the first fast radio burst, or FRB. He published his find later that year. At first, no one else in the astronomical community knew what to make of it, either. Surely such a signal was some sort of man-made interference, many argued, or some phenomenon like lightning. Researchers even produced evidence of man-made signals that looked similar to Lorimer’s FRB but were in fact created by a microwave oven at Parkes. “Even my own wife [radio astronomer Maura McLaughlin] was on a paper arguing the first burst wasn’t real,” recalls Lorimer.
 
 But as the years passed, other astronomers discovered FRBs, first at Parkes and then using radio telescopes around the world. Evidence that FRBs were, in fact, from deep space began to mount. And scientific skepticism grew into excitement upon realizing that FRBs were very real, and perhaps one of the greatest new discoveries in astronomy in decades.

It’s been 10 years since the first FRB discovery. It’s generated so much buzz that in 2017, a few dozen astronomers held the first conference on FRBs, and millions of dollars in funding have been devoted to finding more. But as more bursts come in, the mystery has only deepened. To travel the distance between galaxies, FRBs must have an insane amount of energy — in the few brief milliseconds it shines, an FRB can generate more energy than the Sun does in a day. And yet despite the tremendous energy, no one has a clue about where they come from.

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Category: Science