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Jason Hessels, Professor of Observational High-Energy Astrophysics at the University of Amsterdam and Chief Astronomer at ASTRON, has been awarded a €3.5 million ERC Advanced Grant to search for the origin of fast radio bursts. Among other things, the research money will be used to develop new hardware to set up a coordinated network of European radio telescopes to study repeating FRBs in more detail.
Artist's impression in greyscale and purple of radio telescopes, big dishes on stalks, with a radio wave above.
Artist’s impression of several radio telescopes detecting an FRB. (Credit: ASTRON/Daniëlle Futselaar)

FRBs are amongst the brightest explosions in the Universe, emitting mostly radio waves up to distances of billions of light years. Immense amounts of energy are involved in this. Currently, many astronomers think that magnetars – neutron stars with extremely strong magnetic fields – are the most likely source of FRBs. However, the varied properties of FRBs suggest that there are different types of FRBs coming from different types of astronomical objects, and that magnetars are just one example.

With his project EuroFlash: Exploring the Origins of Fast Radio Bursts Using a Network of European Radio Telescopes, Hessels aims to set up a coordinated network of European radio telescopes to learn as much as possible about FRBs. In doing so, the radio astronomer plans to make use of the LOFAR telescope, which is currently undergoing a software and hardware upgrade to LOFAR2.0, allowing this enormous radio telescope not only to take more measurements simultaneously, but also to have a wider field of view. The other radio telescopes Hessels plans to use are part of the EVN, the European VLBI Network. VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) is a method by which several radio telescopes work together to act as one giant telescope.

Torch in a dusty room

FRBs can teach us a lot about the matter that makes up stars and galaxies, says the radio astronomer: "FRBs are a unique tool for mapping matter that we cannot see directly." This is not dark matter, but matter that does not emit light. We can see the Sun and stars because they are hot and glowing. But we cannot see the ionised hydrogen between galaxies, for example, even though it is one of the most abundant substances in the Universe. Using FRBs, we can still make this matter, invisible to us, visible. Hessels: "When an FRB flashes, the matter between the FRB and us becomes briefly visible. Compare it to a torch you turn on in a dark, dusty room: in the torch's beam, you suddenly see dust glowing." By learning more about how much matter is in the Universe and where it is located, we can learn more about how the Universe works and how stars and galaxies evolve.

To find out as much as possible about FRBs, Hessels will be observing at different radio frequencies. At the lowest frequencies, which can be observed with LOFAR, one can detect further, on time scales of a few milliseconds (about a hundred times faster than blinking your eyes); the EVN telescopes will observe at much higher radio frequencies, on a time scale of microseconds (a microsecond is another thousand times faster than a millisecond). In this way, Hessels hopes to identify the multiple types of sources underlying FRBs.

The ERC Advanced Grant awarded to Hessels comprises €3.5 million, of which €1 million is earmarked for the purchase of new computers and instrumentation for the radio telescopes involved; with the remaining money, Hessels is setting up a research team.