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First we detected them. Then we proved they came from space. Next we located the cosmic birthplace of one of them. Now we have located that of another—bringing humanity closer than ever to solving yet another mystery of the universe. Fast radio bursts (FRBs) have, since their discovery a decade ago, confused and befuddled astronomers. These strange blasts of radio waves appear in the sky from all directions, and their origins remain mostly unknown. But in this scientific quest, each new FRB astronomers detect and study is one more puzzle-piece falling into place; eventually, experts say, the full picture will be revealed. “The analogy is climbing a mountain,” says James Cordes of Cornell University. “We’ve climbed quite a ways. But the peak is still way above us.”

In the June 27 edition of the journal Science, astronomers led by Keith Bannister of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia took another crucial step toward that lofty peak. The team announced it had successfully pinpointed the home of an FRB some 3.6 billion light-years from Earth, the second such discovery made. Following earlier observations, in 2017 the first home of an FRB—called FRB 121102—was tracked down to a star-forming region in a dwarf galaxy slightly closer to us, only three billion light-years away. There are two major curious differences this time around, however. Unlike its predecessor, this latest FRB, known as FRB 180924, is nonrepeating, making localization particularly tricky. Also, and perhaps more importantly, the newer FRB comes from a very different type of galaxy, which could have major implications for how FRBs are created.

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Category: Science