The latest astronomy milestone lasted only a matter of milliseconds. A team of scientists led by Emily Petroff of Swinburne University of Technology revealed in the most recent issue of “Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society” it had observed a “fast radio burst” in real time in May using the Parkes Radio Telescope in eastern Australia. 

“We’re the first to catch one in real time,” Petroff, a doctoral candidate, told Science Blog. “These bursts were generally discovered weeks or months or even more than a decade after they happened!” 

"This is a major breakthrough," Duncan Lorimer of West Virginia University told New Scientist.

Fast Radio Bursts, also known as FRBs, consist of incredibly brief and intense bursts of radio energy that seem to originate from remote parts of space. The team that observed this most recent burst said it believes the burst came from a point 5.5 billion light-years away though it has no idea what caused it. Previously detected FRBs have come from twice as far away.

John Mulchaey, acting director of Carnegie Observatories, part of the team of scientists that observed this particular FRB, has described the phenomenon as “one of the great mysteries of the Universe.” And since FRBs were first observed in 2007, theories about what causes them have proliferated. Some say they are the result of celestial collisions, or of starquakes occurring on extremely powerful neutron stars. Still others contend they are messages sent by intelligent beings directly to Earth.  

To study them more closely, a team of Australian scientists working with the Parkes Radio Telescope developed a technique that could be used to detect the bursts in real time. Swinburne University’s Petroff was using that technique when her team made its historic discovery.