New system shares fast radio burst data in real time

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A new system will be able to share, in real time, the detections of the fast radio bursts (or “FRB”, in the acronym in English), carried out by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) radio telescope. With the system, observatories around the world will be able to have their instruments calibrated based on the origins of these mysterious emissions in order to try to understand them better.

CHIME’s daily observations can yield up to a terabyte of raw data daily, which requires analysis by a small army of researchers and a lot of computing power to study it for possible signals. Now, with the CHIME/FRB VOEvent Service system, the most important details of each FRB observation can be sent to observatories around the world, in real time.

The system works with the Virtual Observatory Event (VOEvent) language, used since 2006 to report transient astronomical events such as supernovae and gravitational lensing. “The sheer volume of data that CHIME/FRB generates, and the sheer number of FRBs detected each day, is like a gold mine for a community eager to point every existing telescope at the next FRB,” said Andrew Zwaniga, Assistant research in the Department of Physics at McGill University.

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The developers of the CHIME/FRB VOEvent Service point out that anyone with access to a telescope capable of pointing at certain locations in the northern sky will be able to use the alerts, performing follow-up observations of FRBs discovered by CHIME. They have made tutorials and documentation available to help both new and veteran users alike.

How the new system works

Located in British Columbia, province of Canada, CHIME is a massive radio observatory dedicated to the observation of radio phenomena. It is part of the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO), and was originally thought to detect radio waves coming from neutral hydrogen gas from the early universe. Today, the facilities are also studying FRBs, radio wave emissions that last a few milliseconds.

The first FRB was detected in 2007, and before CHIME went live, only a few dozen of them were identified. In 2018, the observatory began operating and has already been responsible for detecting more than a thousand of these mysterious signals — and despite the growing number of cataloged events, it is still not known exactly what is behind them.

Thus, the new system works with one of the greatest allies of astronomers today: the sharing of information between facilities around the world. In addition, the CHIME/FRB VOEvent Service is also a big step towards mobilizing resources from the international community so that CHIME/FRB data can be exploited to the fullest extent possible.

Emily Petroff, a researcher who worked on refining the alert system, believes that the help of the international community can advance the science produced by CHIME. “Since CHIME/FRB started operating in 2018, it’s been like he’s been drinking from a fire hose, in terms of the data received,” he commented. “We can’t get all the science out of it, and we need the world’s help.”

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