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Fast radio bursts — what in the universe are they?

Somewhere deep in space, ultrafast fireworks are going off, releasing as much energy in a single millisecond burst as our sun does over 80 years. But what are they?

Two bright stars in night sky

Since they were first detected in 2007, astronomers have been puzzling over the cause of powerful intergalactic pyrotechnics, known as “fast radio bursts” (FRBs). This bafflement stemmed, in part, from a lack of sources to study: between 2007 and 2018, only a couple of dozen FRBs were observed.

Most seemed to be one-off explosions, leading researchers to believe they were caused by cataclysmic events like the death of a star or the merger of two black holes. One burst, however, repeated. That suggested at least some FRBs are formed by a less destructive mechanism.

But what are they? That question remains unsolved, but perhaps not for much longer. In early 2019, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) – a radio telescope in British Columbia – announced the unprecedented detection of 13 new flashes, including another repeater.

Still, theories abound as to what causes FRBs. Here are 10 theories – some plausible, some wild – about the origins of these cosmic light shows.

1. Us?

woman's hand opening microwave door in kitchen

2. Merger of two compact objects

merging of two neutron stars

3. Collisions between neutron stars and asteroids

Asteroid flying through space towards blue star

4. Strange star crust collapse

Blue shining star of energy in space

5. Magnetar giant flares

Blur round star with purple glow in space

6. Mini blazars

Swirl colour vortex with light beam shining through

7. Pulsar starquakes

Blue star in the center of red and orange swirl in space

8. Pulsar lightning

Bolt of lightning from the sky reaching to Earth

9. Superradiance

Light white star shooting blue light from center in space

10. Aliens

Two bright stars in space with number flowing between


CHIME, a radio telescope under construction in British Columbia, expects to find hundreds of “fast radio bursts” and generate a trove of data that may help us understand these mysterious signals in space.

/May 10, 2017

Perimeter Associate Faculty member Matthew Johnson and his colleagues are working to bring the multiverse hypothesis, which to some sounds like a fanciful tale, firmly into the realm of testable science.

/Jul 17, 2014

The CHIME telescope has announced the discovery of more fast radio bursts, or FRBs, including eight new repeating signals.

/Aug 26, 2019