A 3-D map of matter
Although researchers may argue about an FRB's source, there is universal agreement about the mysterious bursts' applications. "If we can trace an FRB to a specific galaxy, we can then independently measure the distance to that galaxy," Thornton says. "Comparing the FRB's dispersion measure with that galactic distance would yield the average electron density between Earth and that other galaxy." And because all those electrons come from baryons—subatomic particles such as protons and neutrons—they would be a proxy measurement of the amount and distribution of unseen ordinary matter that exists between and even within far-distant galaxies. "If we find many different FRB host galaxies at many different distances," Thornton says, "we can begin to create a 3-D map of intergalactic baryonic matter and magnetic fields."
Tracing FRBs to their galaxies would require their real-time detection by a radio telescope such as Parkes, rapidly followed by more detailed observations using high-resolution radio facilities such as the Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico. A new real-time detection scheme has just come online at Parkes, Bailes says, and the telescope has already observed more FRBs.
For Lorimer, the new discoveries are a vindication. "I feel relieved," he says. "It's been a long time coming. FRBs are really going to drive demand for the next generation of radio telescopes as we try to figure out what's making things go off all across the universe like this every 10 seconds. For a while there will be more theories than individual detected bursts, but soon we'll have hundreds of these things from across the entire sky. It’s not very often in astronomy that you get completely new classes of objects coming along, especially ones as strange as these. We are witnessing the birth of an entirely new area of research."