Is ET phoning home?
Australian researchers have almost doubled the tally of mysterious, invisible bursts of radio waves known to be coming from deep space, but they’re still not sure what galaxy they’re coming from.
These so-called “fast radio bursts” — or “FRBs” — are “one of the most mysterious phenomena in the universe,” writes The Independent, which reported on the new research revealed this week.
“They are blasts of incredible energy – equivalent to the amount released by the Sun in 80 years – that last for just a moment, and come from a mysterious source,” The Independent wrote.
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In a study published this week in the journal Nature, researchers describe how high-tech telescopes have detected more of the bursts than ever before.
“We’ve found 20 fast radio bursts in a year, almost doubling the number detected worldwide since they were discovered in 2007,” lead study author Ryan Shannon, an astronomer at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Australia, said in a statement posted Thursday on the ICRAR website. “We’ve also proved that fast radio bursts are coming from the other side of the universe rather than from our own galactic neighborhood.”
Live Science reports that the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) — “a cluster of 36 identical antennas linked up to a single, powerful radio telescope” - was able “to monitor a wider swath of sky for FRBs than has ever been observed before.”
“According to the researchers, the array monitors a slice of sky with ‘about a thousand times the area of the full Moon,’ providing one of the world’s greatest catcher’s mitts for intergalactic radio transmissions,” Live Science reported.
Researchers know radio bursts travel for billions of years from galaxies far, far away and occasionally pass through clouds of space gas, says the Radio Astronomy Research website.
“Each time this happens, the different wavelengths that make up a burst are slowed by different amounts,” the study’s co-author, Jean-Pierre Macquart, said on the research center’s website. “Eventually, the burst reaches Earth with its spread of wavelengths arriving at the telescope at slightly different times, like swimmers at a finish line.
“Timing the arrival of the different wavelengths tells us how much material the burst has traveled through on its journey.
“And because we’ve shown that fast radio bursts come from far away, we can use them to detect all the missing matter located in the space between galaxies — which is a really exciting discovery.”
It’s still anyone’s guess, educated or otherwise, about where the signals are coming from.
Extraterrestrials? That’s been considered.
Last year, a study from two researchers at Harvard University considered whether the FRBs were being used as giant space beacons, “or to power alien light sails,” New Scientist reported.
“This new research isn’t saying that anyone found aliens or that aliens cause FRBs,” New Scientist reported. “Instead, it takes the scenario where these mysterious signals do come from extragalactic civilizations as a starting point, and asks how that could happen.
“Since we don’t know what actually causes FRBs, this work is simply adding another idea to the pile.”
Others have suggested “less intelligent but equally spectacular causes, such as black holes or dense stars smashing into each other,” writes The Independent.
“Could these mystery pulses be the distant flashes of super-massive supernovas?” Live Science asks. “The wild spin of the universe’s speediest neutron stars? Perhaps the thrust of alien spacecraft sailing across the cosmos? Nobody knows for sure.”
Next up for the team: Find the source of the bursts.
“We’ll be able to localize the bursts to better than a thousandth of a degree,” Shannon said on the research center’s website. “That’s about the width of a human hair seen ten meters away, and good enough to tie each burst to a particular galaxy.”