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A New Era of Fast Radio Bursts

One of the most perplexing phenomena in astronomy has come of age. The fleeting blasts of energetic cosmic radiation of unknown cause, now known as fast radio bursts (FRBs), were first detected a decade ago. At the time, many astronomers dismissed the seemingly random blasts as little more than glitches. And although key facts, such as what causes them, are still largely a mystery, FRBs are now accepted as a genuine class of celestial signal and have spawned a field of their own.

The passage was marked this month by the first major meeting on FRBs, held in Aspen, Colorado, on 12–17 February. As well as celebrating a fleet of searches for the signals, the meeting’s 80 delegates grappled with how best to design those hunts and pin down the signals’ origins and precise distances. The trajectory mirrors that of astronomers 20 years ago when they were getting to grips with γ-ray bursts, which are now a staple of astronomical observation, says Bing Zhang, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.