Astronomy

Fast Radio Burst Study Earns Astronomers Prestigious Award

February 9, 2021, 10:18 AM HST
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WM Keck Observatory Chief Scientist John O’Meara (left) and Professor J. Xavier Prochaska of UC Santa Cruz (right) are among the authors awarded the prestigious 2020 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize.

Two astronomers in WM Keck Observatory ‘ohana are among recipients of this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Newcomb Cleveland Prize for work on their fast radio burst (FRB) study.

Chief Scientist John O’Meara and J. Xavier Prochaska of UC Santa Cruz and the entire team of authors is the first to pinpoint the home galaxy of a non-repeating fast radio burst. The AAAS prize is awarded to the most impactful research published in the journal Science.

“Given the robust research AAAS publishes across a variety of scientific fields, it’s a great honor to have this work selected for the Newcomb Cleveland Prize,” said O’Meara, a co-author of the study. “There was a global team of astronomers involved in this work, and it’s wonderful to see such a large collaboration earn this distinction for an exciting science result.”

The winning paper, “A single fast radio burst localized to a massive galaxy at cosmological distance,” was published in Science on Aug. 9, 2019 and includes key data obtained using Keck Observatory on Maunakea.

The paper was chosen out of 687 papers published in the Research Articles or Reports sections of Science between June 2019 and May 2020. The AAAS has been awarding the Newcomb Cleveland Prize annually since 1923; winners receive a medal and a $25,000 prize.

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“Fast radio bursts are extremely short extragalactic events — that is, they originate in a galaxy far, far away — and identifying the exact signal source of one is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack,” said Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science and chair of the Newcomb Cleveland Prize Selection Committee. “The methods outlined in this study will allow other teams to determine the astronomical origins of more FRBs and in turn, perhaps the elusive nature of their sources.”

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AAAS announced the winning paper today at its 187th AAAS Annual Meeting; authors will receive the award Feb. 10, 2021, during a virtual ceremony.

“Keck’s world-leading instrument and the nimbleness of its Target of Opportunity program let us measure the galaxy’s distance within hours after the fast radio burst was localized,” said co-author Prochaska, who coordinated the team that used the Keck Cosmic Web Imager on the Keck II telescope to measure the distance of the FRB’s home.

The astronomers traced it back to a galaxy called DES J214425.25−405400.81, located 3.6 billion light-years away from Earth.

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FRBs are extremely bright, powerful flashes of radio waves that disappear in the blink of an eye, lasting less than a millisecond. This makes it a challenge to detect these signals, let alone pinpointing their source to then accurately measure their distance.

To catch one, the team, led by Keith Bannister of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), developed a new detection method using the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope, which consists of an array of 36 dish antennas. Because they’re spread across about 4,000 square meters, FRB 180924’s radio waves traveled to each antenna at very slightly different times, just a fraction of a billionth of a second. Bannister’s team was able to replay the data from each dish and triangulate the FRBs source. Follow-up observations using Keck Observatory as well as the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and Gemini South, both in Chile, then revealed the burst’s birthplace.

Astronomers can now further probe and characterize its host galaxy to investigate what might have generated the intensely energetic FRB.

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