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Astronomical Discovery Earns 2020 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize

The authors of the winning paper were the first to pinpoint the origin of a non-repeating fast radio burst. | Neil Orman/AAAS

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.


The Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder telescope is an array of 36 radio dishes, each 12 meters in diameter. | CSIRO

The system successfully recorded an FRB on September 24, 2018. The research team then used a supercomputer to combine the data saved from each dish, allowing them to determine the direction that the burst arrived from. This identified the source location as a galaxy about 3.6 billion light-years away and similar in size to our own Milky Way. The angular resolution was even precise enough to determine the FRB’s location within the galaxy.

“If we were to stand on the Moon and look down at the Earth with this precision, we would be able to tell not only which city the burst came from, but which postcode — and even which city block,” Bannister said in a June 2019 CSIRO release announcing the discovery.

Determining the exact location of a non-repeating FRB is an important step toward uncovering what causes the bursts. Additionally, because FRBs are altered by the matter they pass through on their way to Earth, localizing the bursts has already helped researchers understand the low-density gas in intergalactic space, which influences galaxy formation and evolution.


Localizing a non-repeating FRB has already helped researchers understand the low-density gas in intergalactic space. | CSIRO

The Newcomb Cleveland Prize, AAAS’s oldest award, recognizes the author or authors of an outstanding paper published in the Research Articles or Reports sections of Science. To choose the winning study, the selection committee solicits additional peer reviews of finalist papers and judges them on impact in their field and wider, interdisciplinary significance. Papers published between June 2019 and May 2020 were eligible for this year’s award.

The authors of the winning study, “A single fast radio burst localized to a massive galaxy at cosmological distance,” published in the Aug. 9, 2019, issue of Science, will receive the award in a virtual ceremony on Feb. 10, during the 187th AAAS Annual Meeting. AAAS will begin accepting nominations for the 2021 award on April 15. More information on eligibility requirements can be found here.




Adam D. Cohen

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