posted on Jan, 17 2008 @ 12:01 AM
Message 700669 - Posted 16 Jan 2008 21:21:12 UTC
A Bright Millisecond Radio Burst of Extragalactic Origin
D. R. Lorimer,1,2* M. Bailes,3 M. A. McLaughlin,1,2 D. J. Narkevic,1 F. Crawford4
Pulsar surveys offer a rare opportunity to monitor the radio sky for impulsive burst-like events with millisecond durations. We analyzed archival
survey data and found a 30-jansky dispersed burst, less than 5 milliseconds in duration, located 3° from the Small Magellanic Cloud. The burst
properties argue against a physical association with our Galaxy or the Small Magellanic Cloud. Current models for the free electron content in the
universe imply that the burst is less than 1 gigaparsec distant. No further bursts were seen in 90 hours of additional observations, which implies
that it was a singular event such as a supernova or coalescence of relativistic objects. Hundreds of similar events could occur every day and, if
detected, could serve as cosmological probes.
1 Department of Physics, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506, USA.
2 National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Green Bank, WV 24944, USA.
3 Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, Victoria 3122, Australia.
4 Department of Physics and Astronomy, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA 17604, USA.
* To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Transient radio sources are difficult to detect, but they can potentially provide insights into a wide variety of astrophysical phenomena (1). Of
particular interest is the detection of short radio bursts, no more than a few milliseconds in duration, that may be produced by exotic events at
cosmological distances, such as merging neutron stars (2) or evaporating black holes (3). Pulsar surveys are currently among the few records of the
sky with good sensitivity to radio bursts, and they have the necessary temporal and spectral resolution required to unambiguously discriminate between
short-duration astrophysical bursts and terrestrial interference. Indeed, they have recently been successfully mined to detect a new galactic
population of transients associated with rotating neutron stars (4). The burst we report here, however, has a substantially higher inferred energy
output than this class and has not been observed to repeat. This burst therefore represents an entirely new phenomenon.
The burst was discovered during a search of archival data from a 1.4-GHz survey of the Magellanic Clouds (5) using the multibeam receiver on the 64-m
Parkes Radio Telescope (6) in Australia. The survey consisted of 209 telescope pointings, each lasting 2.3 hours. During each pointing, the multibeam
receiver collected independent signals from 13 different positions (beams) on the sky. The data from each beam were one-bit sampled every millisecond
over 96 frequency channels spanning a band 288 MHz wide.
Radio signals from all celestial sources propagate through a cold ionized plasma of free electrons before reaching the telescope. The plasma, which
exists within our Galaxy and in extragalactic space, has a refractive index that depends on frequency. As a result, any radio signal of astrophysical
origin should exhibit a quadratic shift in its arrival time as a function of frequency, with the only unknown being the integrated column density of
free electrons along the line of sight, known as the dispersion measure (DM). Full details of the data reduction procedure to account for this effect,
and to search for individual dispersed bursts, are given in the supporting online material. In brief, for each beam, the effects of interstellar
dispersion were minimized for 183 trial DMs in the range 0 to 500 cm–3 pc. The data were then searched for individual pulses with signal-to-noise
(S/N) ratios greater than 4 with the use of a matched filtering technique (7) optimized for pulse widths in the range 1 to 1000 ms. The burst was
detected in data taken on 24 August 2001 with DM = 375 cm–3 pc contemporaneously in three neighboring beams (Fig. 1) and was located ~3° south of
the center of the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC).
Figure 1 Fig. 1. Multiwavelength image of the field surrounding the burst. The gray scale and contours respectively show H[alpha] and H I emission
associated with the SMC (32, 33). Crosses mark the positions of the five known radio pulsars in the SMC and are annotated with their names and DMs in
parentheses in units of cm–3 pc. The open circles show the positions of each of the 13 beams in the survey pointing of diameter equal to the
half-power width. The strongest detection saturated the single-bit digitizers in the data acquisition system, indicating that its S/N >> 23. Its
location is marked with a square at right ascension 01h 18m 06s and declination –75° 12' 19'' (J2000 coordinates). The other two detections
(with S/Ns of 14 and 21) are marked with smaller circles. The saturation makes the true position difficult to localize accurately. The positional
uncertainty is nominally ±7' on the basis of the half-power width of the multibeam system. However, the true position is probably slightly (a few
arcmin) northwest of this position, given the nondetection of the burst in the other beams. [View Larger Version of this Image (47K GIF file)]
The pulse exhibited the characteristic quadratic delay as a function of radio frequency (Fig. 2) expected from dispersion by a cold ionized plasma
along the line of sight (8). Also evident was a significant evolution of pulse width across the observing frequency band. The behavior we observed,
where the pulse width W scales with frequency f as W [propto] f –4.8 ± 0.4, is consistent with pulse-width evolution due to interstellar scattering
with a Kolmogorov power law [W [propto] f –4 (9)]. The filter-bank system has finite frequency and time resolution, which effectively sets an upper
limit to the intrinsic pulse width Wint = 5 ms. We represent this below by the parameter W5 = Wint/5 ms. Note that it is entirely possible that the
intrinsic width could be much smaller than observed (i.e., W5 10 in the analysis of data from almost 3000 separate positions. Sources with flux
densities greater than ~1 Jy are typically detected in multiple receivers of the multibeam system. Although this is true for both terrestrial and
astrophysical sources, the telescope had an elevation of ~ 60° at the time of the observation, making it virtually impossible for ground-based
transmitters to be responsible for a source that was only detected in three adjacent beams of the pointing.
We have extensively searched for subsequent radio pulses from this enigmatic source. Including the original detection, there were a total of 27 beams
in the survey data that pointed within 30 arcmin of the nominal burst position. These observations, which totaled 50 hours, were carried out between
19 June and 24 July 2001 and showed no significant bursts. In April 2007 we carried out 40 hours of follow-up observations with the Parkes telescope
at 1.4 GHz with similar sensitivity to the original observation. No bursts were found in a search over the DM range 0 to 500 cm–3 pc. These
dedicated follow-up observations implied that the event rate must be less than 0.025 hour–1 for bursts with S/N > 6 (i.e., a 1.4-GHz peak flux
density greater than 300 mJy). The data were also searched for periodic radio signals using standard techniques (8) with null results.
The galactic latitude (b = –41.8°) and high DM of the burst make it highly improbable for the source to be located within our Galaxy. The most
recent model of the galactic distribution of free electrons (10) predicts a DM contribution of only 25 cm–3 pc for this line of sight. In fact, of
more than 1700 pulsars currently known, none of the 730 with |b| > 3.5° has DM > 375 cm–3 pc. The DM is also far higher than any of the 18 known
radio pulsars in the Magellanic Clouds (5), the largest of which is for PSR J0131-7310 in the SMC with DM = 205 cm–3 pc. The other four known radio
pulsars in the SMC have DMs of 70, 76, 105, and 125 cm–3 pc. The high DM of PSR J0131-7310 is attributed (5) to its location in an H II region (Fig.
1). We have examined archival survey data to look for ionized structure such as H[alpha] filaments or H II regions that could similarly explain the
anomalously large DM of the burst. No such features are apparent. The source lies 3° south from the center of the SMC, placing it outside all known
contours of radio, infrared, optical, and high-energy emission from the SMC. This and the high DM strongly suggest that the source is well beyond the
SMC, which lies 61 ± 3 kpc away (11).
No published gamma-ray burst or supernova explosion is known at this epoch or position, and no significant gamma-ray events were detected by the Third
Interplanetary Network (12, 13) around the time of the radio burst. The Principal Galaxy Catalog [PGC (14)] was searched for potential hosts to the
burst source. The nearest candidate (PGC 246336) is located 5 arcmin south of the nominal burst position, but the nondetection of the burst in the
beam south of the brightest detection appears to rule out an association. If the putative host galaxy were similar in type to the Milky Way, the
nondetection in the PGC (limiting B magnitude of 18) implies a rough lower limit of ~600 Mpc on the distance to the source.
We can place an upper bound on the likely distance to the burst from our DM measurement. Assuming a homogeneous intergalactic medium in which all
baryons are fully ionized, the intergalactic DM is expected (15, 16) to scale with redshift, z, as DM ~ 1200 z cm–3 pc for z ≤ 2. Subtracting the
expected contribution to the DM from our Galaxy, we infer z = 0.3, which corresponds to a distance of ~1 Gpc. This is likely an upper limit, because a
host galaxy and local environment could both contribute to the observed DM. Using the electron density model for our Galaxy (10) as a guide, we
estimate that there is a 25% probability that the DM contribution from a putative host galaxy is >100 cm–3 pc and hence z < 0.2. Obviously, the more
distant the source, the more powerful it becomes as a potential cosmological probe. The sole event, however, offers little hope of a definitive answer
at this stage. To enable some indicative calculations about potential source luminosity and event rates, we adopt a distance of 500 Mpc. This
corresponds to z ~0.12 and a host galaxy DM of 200 cm–3 pc. In recognition of the considerable distance uncertainty, we parameterize this as D500 =
D/500 Mpc. If this source is well beyond the local group, it would provide the first definitive limit on the ionized column density of the
intracluster medium, which is currently poorly constrained (17).
What is the nature of the burst source? From the observed burst duration, flux density, and distance, we estimate the brightness temperature and
energy released to be ~1034 (D500/W5)2 K and ~1033W5D5002 J, respectively. These values, and light travel-time arguments that limit the source size to