VLA Searches for Fast Radio Transients
at 1 TB hour\(^{-1}\)

C. J. Law (UCB), G. C. Bower (ASIAA, UCB), S. Burke-Spolaor (Caltech, JPL), B. Butler (NRAO), E. Lawrence (LANL), T. J. W. Lazio (JPL), C. Mattmann (JPL), M. Rupen (NRAO), A. Siemion (UCB), S. VanderWiel (LANL)

Fast Radio Transients

Fast radio transients are pulses of dispersed radio emission lasting less than 1 second. Slower radio transients originate predominantly in synchrotron emission, while faster transients are caused by coherent processes. Furthermore, at timescales faster than 1 second, propagation through the Galactic plasma induces dispersion, the frequency-dependent arrival time quantified by dispersion measure (DM), that begins to be detectable at MHz through GHz radio frequencies.

Fast, Extragalactic Bursts

Fast transients surveys at the Parkes Observatory has revealed a new population of radio transients: the FRB (Lorimer 2007, Thornton 2013). Their DMs range up to 1100 pc cm\(^{-3}\), an order of magnitude larger than expected from the Galaxy and consistent with propagation through the IGM from distances up to z\(\sim\)1.

Basic questions about FRBs remain open: What are they? and How can we use them? If they do in fact lie at cosmological distances, their dispersion can measure the baryonic mass of the IGM, much as Galactic pulsars of known distance have mapped the electron content of the Milky Way (Cordes 2002). Beyond using FRBs as probes, understanding the origin of FRBs may have relevance to gamma-ray bursts and sources of gravitational waves (Falcke 2013, Kashiyama 2013).

Pulsars, RRATs

Similar pulsar surveys have discovered a new class of Galactic radio transient: the rotating radio transient (McLaughlin 2006). It is unclear whether extreme objects like magnetars or ordinary pulsars can generate pulses detected as RRATs (Weltevrede 2006).

Moving slightly beyond our Galaxy, the most distant radio transients associated with a host galaxy are in M31 (Rubio-Herrera 2013). The dispersion measure of any pulses known to be in M31 would make the first constraint on the Milky Way and M31 halo baryon content, which would help address the “missing baryon problem” (Bregman 2007).

Flare Stars, Ultracool Dwarfs, Exoplanets

Jupiter emits intense radio bursts that make it the brightest astronomical object in the solar system below 100 MHz. Coronal mass ejections (much as seen in the Sun), also drive radio fast, coherent radio flares. These processes could be used to measure magnetism and plasma properties of other stars (Hallinan 2007) and should profoundly affect the habitability of orbiting exoplanets (Tarter 2007). transients.

Fast Imaging with the VLA

While single-dish telescopes have pioneered the study of fast radio transients, interferometers are poised to transform the field. Interferometers form “synthetic” apertures many kilometers in diameter, which allows them to expand on every limitation of single-dish telescopes:

  • Precise localization: Interferometers image with arcsecond precision, as shown in the image of a pulsar pulse shown in Figure \ref{candplot}.

  • High survey speed: Interferometers have large fields of view and are powerful survey machines.

  • Robust calibration and interference rejection: Interferometers can measure fluxes more accurately and reject interference that complicates single-dish fast transient searches.

Interferometers are technically more demanding than single-dish telescopes because their fundamental measurement is the correlation of pairs of antennas. Thus, where a single-dish telescope has a single data stream (or a few, if using a multi-beam receiver), a comparable interferemeter like the VLA has 27 antennas and thus 351 data streams. An efficient algorithm for extracting transients from this massive data stream could revolutionize the study of fast transients by uniquely associating radio transients with multiwavelength counterparts (e.g., FRB host galaxies, RRAT NS hosts, stellar/planetary associations).

We have commissioned the Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) to observe with millisecond integrations and data rates of 1 TB hour\(^{-1}\) (Law 2012). We have also developed an extensive, parallelized software system to search visibility data for dispersed transients1. The pipeline is written in Python/Cython and run within the NRAO software package CASA 2.

  1. Portions of the code base are available at http://github.com/caseyjlaw/tpipe.

  2. See http://casa.nrao.edu.