In a shock finding, astronomers using CSIRO's Parkes telescope have detected a huge burst of radio energy from the distant universe that could open up a new field in astrophysics.
The research team, led by Assistant Professor Duncan Lorimer of West Virginia University, reports its discovery today in the online journal Science Express.
The radio burst appears to have originated at least one-and-a-half billion light-years [500 Mpc] away but was startlingly strong.
"Normally the kind of cosmic activity we're looking for at this distance would be very faint but this was so bright that it saturated the equipment," said Professor Matthew Bailes of Swinburne University in Melbourne.
The burst was so bright that at the time it was first recorded it was dismissed as man-made radio interference. It put out a huge amount of power (10exp33 Joules), equivalent to a large (2000MW) power station running for two billion billion years.
"The burst may have been produced by an exotic event such as the collision of two neutron stars or be the last gasp of a black hole as it evaporates completely," Professor Lorimer said.
The burst lasted just five milliseconds.
It was found by David Narkevik, an undergraduate at the West Virginia University, when he re-analysed data taken with the Parkes telescope six years ago.
Although they've found only one burst, the astronomers can estimate how often they occur.
"We'd expect to see a few bursts over the whole sky every day," said Dr John Reynolds, Officer in Charge at CSIRO's Parkes Observatory.
"A new telescope being built in Western Australia will be ideal for finding more of these rare, transient events.
"The Australian SKA Pathfinder, which is going to be built by 2012, will have a very wide field of view--be able to see a very large piece of sky--which is exactly what you want for this kind of work," he said.
Meanwhile, the researchers will comb archived data from the Parkes telescope for more radio bursts.
The discovery of the radio burst is similar to the discovery of gamma-ray bursts in the 1970s, when military satellites revealed flashes of gamma-rays appearing all over the sky. One kind--the so-called long-period bursts--was eventually identified as the explosion (supernova) of a massive star with the associated formation of a black hole.