Scientists Seek Origin of Powerful Radio Waves from Another Galaxy

Wednesday, 10 January 2018 - 5:36PM
Alien Life
Wednesday, 10 January 2018 - 5:36PM
Scientists Seek Origin of Powerful Radio Waves from Another Galaxy

Far away, in a distant dwarf galaxy, something may be trying to get our attention.

Since 2016, scientists have been baffled by the phenomenon known as FRB 121102, a series of radio waves that appear to be broadcast out to the stars in much the same way that we send out desperate messages in the hopes of connecting with some other intelligent life.

There is, though, one big difference between FRB 121102 and our own relatively humble attempts at getting someone's attention - when we send a message, it doesn't involve an explosion that gives off more energy in a millisecond than our sun does in an entire day.

Fast radio bursts (shortened to FRB) are not an uncommon sight across the stars - these big bursts of radio waves are believed to be the result of enormous explosions, perhaps caused by neutron stars meeting black holes, or by other, similarly enormous cataclysmic events. Some scientists theorize that these may occur as often as ten thousand times a day, even though we've only managed to spot around twenty since FRBs were first discovered in 2007.

It's easy to dismiss such large, seemingly random pops and sparks in the night's sky as nothing more than natural phenomenon; no particular pattern or code seems to be in use, so it's logical that these are merely the result of standard inorganic occurrences throughout the universe.

What makes FRB 121102 so interesting is that it doesn't look quite so random - if FRBs are caused by exploding stars, there needs to be a logical reason why the same star is exploding multiple times. This particular event was first discovered in 2016, and has puzzles scientists because, instead of a one-off burst of radio waves, FRB 121102 shows the same event repeating more than once.

According to Jason Hessels, one of the authors of a new paper about the phenomenon, this is a potentially huge breakthrough in understanding FRB events:

Opening quote
"It is the only known repeating fast radio burst source. A key question in the field is whether this repeating fast radio burst source is fundamentally different compared to all the other apparently nonrepeating sources."
Closing quote

Hessels' paper, which was just published by Nature, details how he and a team of scientists from the University of Amsterdam found that the signal from this distant FRB had been warped by plasma clouds on its journey to us, scrambling the signal somewhat.

Apparently, FRB 121102 originated from an event that took place three billion light years from Earth, in a staggeringly enormous cosmic event. The signals from this event then traveled through space to us, passing through a cloud of plasma that was filled with electrically charged plasma that twisted the radio waves in a process called Faraday rotation.

Whatever happened in this cloud, the signals ended up being distorted five hundred times more than any FRB that scientists have observed before. Unfortunately, this distortion in the signal, like white noise in a traditional radio broadcast here on Earth, means that it's very difficult to figure out what the original event may have been like.

The paper is unable to conclude whether FRB 121102's repeating signal was caused by a single event, or by multiple different major explosions. And there's currently no evidence to suggest that this signal was the work of a hyper-advanced intelligent race of aliens, in case anyone was jumping to that conclusion already.

That said, if you had the power to set off multiple neutron star explosions in a row, and you knew that it was the only way of broadcasting your existence to the universe so that beings who would one day exist in another galaxy would know that you were alive, wouldn't you want to use your tech to try and leave a lasting impression on the universe around you?

Even if there's no evidence pointing to an announcement from an ancient alien race, let's face it - if humanity ever actually builds something as powerful as a Death Star, this is the kind of thing we'd use it for.

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