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A direct localization of a fast radio burst and its host

Abstract

Fast radio bursts1,2 are astronomical radio flashes of unknown physical nature with durations of milliseconds. Their dispersive arrival times suggest an extragalactic origin and imply radio luminosities that are orders of magnitude larger than those of all known short-duration radio transients3. So far all fast radio bursts have been detected with large single-dish telescopes with arcminute localizations, and attempts to identify their counterparts (source or host galaxy) have relied on the contemporaneous variability of field sources4 or the presence of peculiar field stars5 or galaxies4. These attempts have not resulted in an unambiguous association6,7 with a host or multi-wavelength counterpart. Here we report the subarcsecond localization of the fast radio burst FRB 121102, the only known repeating burst source8,9,10,11, using high-time-resolution radio interferometric observations that directly image the bursts. Our precise localization reveals that FRB 121102 originates within 100 milliarcseconds of a faint 180-microJansky persistent radio source with a continuum spectrum that is consistent with non-thermal emission, and a faint (twenty-fifth magnitude) optical counterpart. The flux density of the persistent radio source varies by around ten per cent on day timescales, and very long baseline radio interferometry yields an angular size of less than 1.7 milliarcseconds. Our observations are inconsistent with the fast radio burst having a Galactic origin or its source being located within a prominent star-forming galaxy. Instead, the source appears to be co-located with a low-luminosity active galactic nucleus or a previously unknown type of extragalactic source. Localization and identification of a host or counterpart has been essential to understanding the origins and physics of other kinds of transient events, including gamma-ray bursts12,13 and tidal disruption events14. However, if other fast radio bursts have similarly faint radio and optical counterparts, our findings imply that direct subarcsecond localizations may be the only way to provide reliable associations.

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Figure 1: VLA detection of FRB 121102.
Figure 2: Radio and optical images of the FRB 121102 field.
Figure 3: Broadband spectral energy distribution of the counterpart.

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Acknowledgements

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities. We thank the staff at the NRAO for their continued support of these observations, especially with scheduling and computational infrastructure. The Arecibo Observatory is operated by SRI International under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (AST-1100968), and in alliance with Ana G. Méndez-Universidad Metropolitana and the Universities Space Research Association. We thank the staff at Arecibo for their support and dedication that enabled these observations. Further acknowledgements of telescope facilities and funding agencies are included as Supplementary Information.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

S.C. was principal investigator of the localization campaign described here. C.J.L. and S.B.-S. are principal investigators of the realfast project and performed the analysis that achieved the first VLA burst detections. S.C., C.J.L., R.S.W., S.B.-S., G.C.B., B.B. and P.D. performed detailed analysis of the VLA data. S.B.-S. and B.B. led the analysis of the VLA multi-band spectral data. J.W.T.H. was principal investigator of the EVN observations, which were analysed by Z.P. and B.M. G.C.B. was principal investigator of the VLBA observations, and led their analysis. J.W.T.H., A.S. and L.G.S. led the execution and analysis of the parallel Arecibo observing campaign. P.D. led the commissioning of fast-sampled VLA observing modes. S.C. was principal investigator of the ALMA observations. P.S. was principal investigator of the X-ray observations, and performed the X-ray analysis, along with S.B. S.P.T. was principal investigator of the Gemini observations, and along with C.G.B. led the analysis of Keck, Gemini and archival UKIDSS and GLIMPSE data. S.C. and C.J.L. led the writing of the manuscript, with substantial contributions from J.M.C. and J.W.T.H. All authors contributed substantially to the interpretation of the analysis results and to the final version of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to S. Chatterjee.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Reviewer Information Nature thanks H. Falcke and G. Hallinan for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 The offset of FRB 121102 from the persistent counterpart.

Five bursts detected at the VLA with the highest resolution (A-array, 3 GHz) are plotted (crosses), with epoch indicated by MJD values. The (right ascension (RA), declination (Dec)) coordinate difference (burst relative to counterpart) is shown with an ellipse indicating the 1σ error calculated as the quadrature sum of errors in the two sources. VLBA and EVN positions are indicated, with 1σ errors smaller than the symbols. The centroid of the Gemini optical counterpart is shown (red dot) with an estimated 1σ error circle of 100 mas (red) from fitting and radio-optical frame tie uncertainties.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 2 VLA spectrum of the persistent counterpart to FRB 121102.

The integrated flux density Fν is plotted for each epoch of observation (listed by MJD) over a frequency range ν from 1 GHz to 25 GHz. Error bars represent 1σ uncertainties. The spectrum is non-thermal and inconsistent with a single power law.

Source data

Extended Data Table 1 VLA detections of bursts from FRB 121102 and Arecibo constraints
Extended Data Table 2 VLA 3-GHz observations of the persistent counterpart to FRB 121102 over time
Extended Data Table 3 Flux density and position measurements of the persistent counterpart to FRB 121102

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains extended acknowledgements. (PDF 62 kb)

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Chatterjee, S., Law, C., Wharton, R. et al. A direct localization of a fast radio burst and its host. Nature 541, 58–61 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature20797

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