AI Helps Radio Telescope to Detect Mystifying Signals

One of the oldest sciences and fundamental to our understanding of the universe, astronomy is a subject which involves observing phenomena from outer space and collecting data to enable researchers to explain mysterious events. One such mystery which, through the help of artificial intelligence, was brought into the light is fast radio bursts (FRBs).

The fraction of a second, high energy radio bursts were discovered nearly 10 years ago at CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope. Usually, these strange signals go undetected but are only recognized later when astronomers find large spikes in random places in their data.

Explanations for these occurrences range from saying that the signals don’t originate from outer space but from some random local interferences to people proposes bizarre theories of aliens trying to communicate with us. However, it should be mentioned that, although the FRBs are extremely luminous – about a billion times more than anything found in the Milky Way – they come from spectacularly large distances which makes any sort of explanation regarding the communication of other beings very unlikely.

Figuring out where the bursts come from is the key to understanding what makes them. Only one burst has been linked to a specific galaxy.
— Manisha Caleb, Ph.D. candidate at Australian National University

Although the nature of the source of FRBs is still speculative, it is clear now that they do come from outer space – not just a mere interference. Wael Farah, the first person to discover FRBs in real-time, developed a machine learning detection system.

The Molonglo Radio Observatory is where he trained an on-site computer to recognize the signature of FRBs. The reason why astronomers haven’t been able to analyse these events until now is that radio telescopes produce more data per second than they can reasonably store. As such, they avoid recording anything in detail except for the most interesting phenomena.

The AI-system allows the powerful telescope near Canberra with a huge field of view to search for FRBs effectively by switching over to its recording mode to record them in their finest detail.

So why does this all matter? A vast proportion of the matter in the universe is completely invisible to us, and this is what astronomers call dark matter. Dark matter is a particularly well-known subject for people interested in the cosmos. Not much is known about it other than how it’s thought to account for approximately 85% of the matter in the universe. FRBs offer a way to detect where the unseen matter is distributed in galaxies because of how the FRB signal become stretched as it passes through this medium.

The FRB signal becomes stretched as the higher frequencies travel faster than the lower frequencies.

The FRB signal becomes stretched as the higher frequencies travel faster than the lower frequencies.

It is very exciting to see the University of Sydney’s Molonglo telescope making such important scientific discoveries by partnering with Swinburne’s expertise in supercomputing.
— Professor Anne Green, University of Sydney