A brief, blazing burst of radio waves detected by the Arecibo Observatorycould herald a turning of the tide for a peculiar class of cosmic signals. Until recently, the signals had only ever been detected by a telescope in Australia, a pattern that fueled doubts about their origin.
Fewer than a dozen of these bursts, lasting for only a few thousandths of a second, have ever been reported. Called “fast radio bursts,” the signals are cosmic enigmas that appear to come from the very, very distant universe. But since the first burst discovery in 2007, scientists have not only wondered what kind of cosmic object could produce such a tremendously bright, short-lived radio pulse – but have disagreed about whether the bursts are even celestial.
On November 2, 2012, a blast of radio waves collided with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, where the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope lives. Rain or shine, day or night, the 305-meter dish collects radio waves from the cosmos, which are then processed into data for scientists to study.