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Astronomers keep hearing unexplained, extremely powerful signals from the far reaches of space — signals that come by loud and clear for a thousandth of a second after which mysteriously disappear. First found in 2007, “these pulses are often known as quick radio bursts”, and so they stay one of many universe’s largest mysteries. Dozens of the enigmatic cosmic signals have been detected, and astronomers have puzzled over them for the past decade, making an attempt to decode where they arrive from — and what causes them.

In a historic first, an international team of researchers has pinpointed the location of a non-repeating fast radio burst, discovering its supply originates in the outskirts of a galaxy 4 billion light-years away.

The monumental findings, revealed in AAAS journal Science on Thursday, detail the discovery and localization of FRB 180924, a powerful, one-off fast radio burst that lasted for just a fraction of a second. Speculation about the reason for the bizarre signals takes in everything from explosive neutron stars to alien spacecraft, and whereas we’re nonetheless unsure what’s causing them, the revelation puts astronomers one step nearer to their true nature.

The burst was picked up by the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, which consists of 36 radio telescopes working in tandem to scan the sky and pay attention for radio alerts. Situated in the Australian outback, where there’s little radio interference, ASKAP is ready to pick up the faintest whispers of the universe. The burst traveled from the other side of the universe, smacking into ASKAP’s array — and within half a second, the machine stopped the search and downloaded the data from each of the 36 dishes.

The burst hits each dish a totally different time. In a ridiculous feat of engineering, the team can calculate the difference in arrival time to within one-tenth of a nanosecond. That permits their detective work to begin, tracing the place to a spot in the sky essentially plucking a needle from a haystack.

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