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Brilliant burst in space reveals universe’s magnetic field

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Scientists have detected the brightest fast burst of radio waves in space to date – locating the source of the event with more precision than previous efforts. Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are powerful radio flashes lasting just milliseconds, with mysterious origins that continue to be a matter of debate. While the bursts potentially carry valuable information that may provide useful insights about stellar evolution and cosmology, the uncertainty regarding the sources fueling them has limited their use in the study of the Universe. Another unresolved question is whether they arise in powerful processes in distant galaxies or much weaker ones in the Milky Way, because it has been difficult to associate the short (millisecond) radio flashes with any objects seen at other wavelengths. Here, Vikram Ravi, Ryan Shannon and colleagues leveraged the brightness of the flash, and the fact that it was observed by two of their detectors simultaneously, to more accurately pinpoint where it may have occurred. These measurements narrowed down the flash to several possible sites, with the most likely one being a galaxy called VHS7. By analyzing how the wavelength and polarization of the radio waves changed during the burst, the authors were able to measure the magnetic field between Earth and the galaxy, which could better inform models of the Universe's larger-scale structure.

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