A team of astronomers and astrophysicists based at 21 research institutions around the world will receive the 2020 Newcomb Cleveland Prize, presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for a discovery that could improve our understanding of the structure of the Universe, as well as galaxy formation and evolution.
Each year since 1923, the Newcomb Cleveland Prize has honored the most impactful research paper published in the journal Science. In this year’s winning paper, the authors described how they became the first to pinpoint the origin of a non-repeating fast radio burst (FRB). Though they last only a few milliseconds, FRBs are some of the brightest radio sources in the sky.
“Fast radio bursts are extremely short extragalactic events — that is, they originate in a galaxy far, far away — and identifying the exact signal source of one is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack,” said Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science and chair of the Newcomb Cleveland Prize Selection Committee. “The methods outlined in this study will allow other teams to determine the astronomical origins of more FRBs and in turn, perhaps the elusive nature of their sources.”
Astronomers discovered FRBs in 2007. While some repeat, the vast majority occur just once, lasting a few milliseconds, and their fleeting nature makes them extremely difficult to study. For more than a decade, researchers were unable to trace a one-off FRB back to its origin.
In an attempt to detect a non-repeating FRB and locate its source, Keith Bannister, a research engineer at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, led an international collaboration. Bannister’s team included scientists from Australia, Chile, India, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Using CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder telescope, an array of 36 radio dishes, each 12 meters in diameter, the researchers continuously monitored large parts of the sky, waiting for an FRB. To avoid collecting an unmanageable amount of data, they designed a processing system to automatically detect FRBs and save three seconds of data around the events.