Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Breakthrough lets scientists track mysterious fast radio bursts in real time

In the Okanagan Valley outside Penticton, British Columbia, there is a huge radio observatory dedicated to observing cosmic radio phenomena.

It is called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) and is a cylindrical parabolic radio telescope that looks like what snowboarders would call a halfpipe. This array is part of the Dominion Radioastrophysical Observatory (DRAO), overseen by the National Research Council (NRC).

The observatory was originally intended to detect radio waves of neutral hydrogen gas in the early universe. Today it is used for other purposes such as the detection and study of fast radio bursts (FRBs).

Since it started, CHIME scientists have been busy sorting through terabytes of data to pinpoint signals, often detecting several in a single day. To aid in all of this data collection and coordinate CHIME’s efforts with other entities around the world, scientists at McGill University have developed a new system to share the massive amount of CHIME-generated data.

The first FRB, the famous Lorimer Burst, was discovered in 2007 by West Virginia University astronomer Duncan Lorimer and colleagues using the Parkes Radio Telescope. Since then, these short-lived radio pulses, which often last for milliseconds, have become a source of mystery and intrigue for astronomers.

Before CHIME went live in 2018, astronomers found only a few dozen FRBs. Since then, CHIME has been responsible for detecting over 1000 signals!

Despite this growing catalog of events, there is still a lot of controversy about what causes them.

Part of what makes CHIME effective is that it has no moving parts, and instead relies on the rotation of the Earth to observe wide swaths of the northern sky on a daily basis.

Combined with its huge field of view and frequency coverage, CHIME is an almost ideal tool for finding and studying FRBs. But preparing so well to learn FRB entails a lot of responsibility and hard work.

Daily CHIME observations can yield up to a terabyte of raw data per day, requiring a small army of researchers and large computing power to analyze them for potential signals.

Moreover, since most FRBs are only a few milliseconds long and do not repeat themselves, it is very difficult for other observatories to tune their instruments on the source before it disappears. But with the new data exchange system, key details of each FRB can be sent to observatories around the world in real time.

This system is known as the CHIME / FRB VOEvent Service and was developed by scientists at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

The system is based on the standardized language Virtual Observatory Event (VOEvent), which has been used since 2006 to report transient astronomical events such as supernovae, gravitational microlensing, and gamma ray bursts (GRB). Andrew Zwaniga, Research Fellow in the Department of Physics at McGill, was the lead developer of the data exchange service.

As he said in a McGill Newsroom press release, the CHIME / FRB service will allow astronomers to train their instruments on FRB sources and collect additional clues to help unravel the FRB mystery.

“The sheer volume of data that CHIME / FRB generates, and the large number of new FRBs that it discovers every day, is like a goldmine for the community looking to point any existing telescope to the next FRB,” he said. …

The system matches one of the greatest achievements of astronomers to date: vastly improved communication between objects around the world. It also represents a key step towards mobilizing the resources of the international research community so that the data from the CHIME / FRB project can be fully utilized.

This is also consistent with the goal of the CHIME / FRB project team to make all CHIMA data available to the public so that other observatories can conduct follow-up studies with minimal delays.

Emily Petroff, Research Fellow at the Department of Physics at McGill University, played a key role in improving the warning system ahead of its public release. As she summarized, the assistance of the international community will significantly advance the science of CHIME.

“Since CHIME / FRB started operating in 2018, the volume of data coming in has been like drinking from a fire hose,” she said. “We just can’t get all the science out of it, we need the world’s help.”

The developers of the CHIME / FRB VOEvent Service emphasize that anyone with access to a telescope that can point to locations to the north will be able to use warnings to follow up on FRBs discovered by CHIME.

“We’ve prepared tutorials and extensive documentation for new and experienced VOEvents users to get started quickly,” Zvaniga said. “We invite comments and questions regarding VOEvents from the community on our public CHIME / FRB community GitHub page.”

This article was originally published by Universe Today. Read the original article.

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