Who's Calling? Scientists Pick Up Mysterious Repeating Radio Signals From Distant Galaxy

Thursday, 10 January 2019 - 12:42PM
Astronomy
Space
Thursday, 10 January 2019 - 12:42PM
Who's Calling? Scientists Pick Up Mysterious Repeating Radio Signals From Distant Galaxy
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ESO/A. Roquette CC BY 3.0
Like Tabby's Star, the mystery surrounding 'fast radio bursts' (or FRBs) has piqued the interest of scientists and science enthusiasts everywhere: no one knows exactly what causes them or where they come from, but they're elusive and incredibly powerful. One of the most recent FRBs contained roughly 25 million times more energy than our star. That burst was remarkable in another way—it's only the second 'repeating' FRB ever discovered.

Most fast radio bursts pop up and disappear in short order. Though researchers have been able to track down the area of origin for at least one FRB, it's usually difficult to study one. Repeating bursts, on the other hand, loop the same signal multiple times, allowing scientists to gain more insight into it, including what may have caused it in the first place. Some of the proposed candidates for FRB sources are magnetars (neutron stars with strong magnetic fields), merging neutron stars, and (among the fringe) undiscovered alien civilizations.

The most recent spate of FRBs, including the 'repeater,' was discovered by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (or CHIME), which picked up a total of fourteen FRBs, including six from the same source. The source of the repeating bursts was estimated to be about 1.5 billion light years away, in a distant galaxy. What makes these findings especially exciting is that CHIME managed to find these signals while it was still being prepped for full operation. Once CHIME is running at full capacity, it may discover many, many more FRBs—potentially thousands per day. With more data on fast radio bursts, including their sources and behavior, it's only a matter of time before astronomers and astrophysicists unravel their mystery.

Of course, if you're Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian centre for astrophysics, you already have a few ideas—including the theory that FRBs are evidence of powerful alien spaceship launches.

Image: ESO/A. Roquette CC BY 3.0
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