Scouring the skies for alien technology has turned up strange radio bursts
One of the most mysterious objects in space just got even weirder. A group of researchers just found 15 new fast radio bursts, all from the only one of these objects that we’ve ever seen repeat.
Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are some of the universe’s strangest phenomena: powerful radio signals that flash from distant space for milliseconds and then disappear. They have been attributed to everything from black holes to extraterrestrial intelligence.
Because they’re so brief, and because radio telescopes can only watch a small area of the sky at a time, only about 2 dozen FRBs have ever been detected. Of those, only one has been observed to repeat: FRB 121102, which resides in a dwarf galaxy about 3 billion light years away from Earth.
Now, researchers with the Breakthrough Listen initiative, a $100 billion search for signs of intelligent life in the universe, have detected 15 more pulses from FRB 121102.
These signals were at higher frequencies than any FRB we’ve seen before. It’s still unclear what that means for these elusive events, but researchers hope that it will help narrow down the field of potential explanations.
“Previously we thought there wasn’t much emission at high or low frequencies, but now it looks like there is,” says Avi Loeb at Harvard University. “It’s twice as high as the typical frequency that was previously claimed for this repeater.”
A higher range of frequencies could make repeating FRBs like 121102 easier to detect, which is crucial because all of the current attempts to explain them have only one source to work from. But it also adds another layer of weirdness which could make the mechanism producing FRBs even more difficult to pin down.
“It’s very funky how the individual bursts can pop up anywhere in this wide range of frequencies, even though each individual burst has a relatively narrow frequency coverage,” says Peter Williams, also at Harvard University. “I have yet to see anyone offer up a good explanation for how that might happen.”