A new Dutch telescope is set to help solve a nagging astrophysical mystery, by automatically scanning the southern skies alongside a giant array of radio dishes. MeerLICHT, a 65-centimeter optical telescope, is expected to help identify the sources of fast radio bursts (FRBs)—extremely brief, energetic flashes of radio waves from remote galaxies. In early April, after finishing tests at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, the telescope will be put in crates and shipped via cargo plane to the South African Astronomical Observatory near Sutherland. “We expect to be fully operational in July or August,” says MeerLICHT Project Manager Steven Bloemen.
Astronomers estimate that every day, thousands of FRBs occur around the universe. They last for a fraction of a second and contain as much energy as the daily output of the sun. Yet only a few dozen have been detected so far, by chance, when large radio dishes happened to be pointing in the right direction. In one case, the FRB repeated, which meant other telescopes could make follow-up observations. One favored explanation is that FRBs come from dense, highly magnetized neutron stars in remote galaxies, but their true nature remains pretty much unknown.
MeerLICHT (Dutch for “more light”) may uncover their identity by looking for optical counterparts—transient flashes of light that could help astronomers determine the location and energy of FRBs. MeerLICHT will automatically and continuously scan the same region of sky as the South African radio observatory MeerKAT, which is an array of dozens of 13-meter dishes some 250 kilometers north of Sutherland. “No one has tried this approach before,” Bloemen says.