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B.C. telescope detects far-off bursts of light

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VANCOUVER—A new radio telescope has allowed space-watchers to see bursts of light travelling from a far-away galaxy in a discovery they say could open new doors in understanding the universe and the study of star systems.

The revolutionary radio telescope housed in an observatory south of Penticton, B.C. is at the centre of the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME.

It is a collaboration by several North American universities, including the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, McGill University, and Yale, and the National Research Council of Canada.

Deborah Good, a UBC Ph.D student working on the project, said unlike a normal radio dish, this radio telescope is made up of four cylinders containing 1,024 antennae that can measure fast, short-lived bursts of light found on the radio wave spectrum called fast radio bursts.

Fast radio bursts are made up of photons, which are particles of light that can be dispersed by gas and dust found it space. The further away they are, the more dispersed they will be.

The telescope originally was designed to chart hydrogen and measure the historical expansion of the universe.

Good said the majority of the bursts they previously detected were measured around 1,400 megahertz, making the bursts detected on July 25 at 580 megahertz an illuminating find.

While the telescope is extremely sensitive, Good said it's a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack using a large magnifying glass.

“If you look in the right place, you'll find it," she remarked. "It's just hard to figure out where that place is.”

Radio waves occur naturally from cosmic objects and lightning strikes, and are longer waves of light than the human eye normally can see, like the infrared and ultraviolet spectrums.

On a typical day, the telescope detects between two and 50 fast radio bursts.

After a previous burst measuring 700 megahertz was spotted, Good said they were worried that might be the lowest frequency they could see with the telescope, or that perhaps they weren't searching for the right frequencies.

“We're kind of relieved to see that, indeed, we get to see things in the lower half of the band,” she noted during a telephone interview.

Researchers have detected several more such bursts recently, Good said, but they still are measuring the information and she couldn't go into further detail.

For those hoping the radio bursts might be a sign of alien life, Good dispelled that notion.

“There's a bunch of theories right now, but one thing we're really confident about is that it's not aliens,” she laughed.

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