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Jason Hessels receives Vici grant to localise Fast Radio Bursts

Jason Hessels (ASTRON & University of Amsterdam) has been awarded an NWO Vici grant for his project entitled “AstroFlash: probing the extremes of the Universe at high time and spatial resolution”.

Published by the editorial team, 19 February 2020

The Vici grants provide researchers with 1.5 MEur to explore an innovative research line over the course of 5 years.  With the grant, Hessels will build a research group of PhD students and postdocs hosted at ASTRON, JIVE and the University of Amsterdam.  Hessels’ previous research activities have been funded, in part, by NWO Veni and Vidi grants, which together with the Vici form the “NWO-Talentprogramma”.

In the AstroFlash project, Hessels will use the European VLBI Network – a global array of radio telescopes – to precisely localise the positions of fast radio bursts (FRBs).  The FRB phenomenon was discovered in 2007.  Though the FRBs remain mysterious, astronomers have demonstrated that these millisecond-duration flashes of radio light originate from distant galaxies. Whatever is producing the FRBs is thus exceptionally energetic and unlike anything we have studied before. The FRBs therefore hold great scientific promise to give us new insights into the extremes of the Universe. They are also a unique tool to probe the otherwise invisible material within and between galaxies.

Identifying the host galaxies of FRBs is critical both for understanding their nature as well as using them as astrophysical probes. To date, only 2 repeating FRB sources have been precisely localised – most recently, FRB 180916.J0158+65, where EVN observations were used to localise the source to a relatively nearby spiral galaxy, see (Marcote, Nimmo, Hessels et al. 2020).

With the AstroFlash team, Hessels aims to precisely localise dozens of repeating FRBs, and thereby come to a deeper understanding of what produces these fascinating astronomical signals.

Caption figure: To robustly identify the host galaxy of an FRB, one needs to localise its position on the sky to at least arcsecond precision (less than a thousandth of a degree).  Using the EVN, one can localise FRBs to milli-arcsecond precision – thereby pin-pointing the exact galactic neighbourhood of the source.  This was done for FRB 180916.J0158+65, which was found to reside in an oddly shaped star-forming region in a relatively nearby spiral galaxy about 500 million lightyears away.  The precision of the EVN position is equivalent to a few lightyears transverse distance within this galaxy – i.e. similar to the distance between individual stars.  Hessels and collaborators plan to use the Hubble Space Telescope to zoom-in on this position in order to better understand what is going on. Credit: Jason Hessels

Image credit: ASTRON




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