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Mysterious Deep-Space Radio Bursts Puzzle Astronomers

Planet Earth has been unknowingly and knowingly beaming radio transmissions into space since the development of radio technology. While science fiction often portrays alien civilizations learning about life on Earth by picking up on our errant transmissions, the speed at which these waves travel means they likely haven’t gotten very far yet; wireless transmission has only been around for around 150 years after all. However, the nearest solar system, Alpha Centauri, is only just four light years away. That means if alien civilizations happen to be found in Alpha Centauri, the transmissions they are currently receiving from Earth are only about four years behind our current time. Hope they like Lady Gaga.

α Centauri, β Centauri, the brightest stars in the Alpha Centauri system.

α Centauri and β Centauri, the brightest stars in the Alpha Centauri system.

While we’ve so far turned up no concrete evidence of other civilizations in our search for deep space transmissions, more and more evidence is being discovered of so-called “fast radio bursts” (FRB). In particular, a group of FRBs coming from a source known as FRB 121102 has been an increasing subject of astronomical research. This mysterious source still remains unknown and lies close to 3 billion light-years away in the constellation Auriga.

Constellation Auriga

Constellation Auriga.

FRB 121102 was first detected in 2012 by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and has since been also observed by the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. In all, 17 radio bursts have been detected from this mysterious source.

The Arecibo Observatory. Yes it's the same one from that Bond movie. No, you can't skate on it.

The Arecibo Observatory. Yes it’s the same one from that Bond movie. No, you can’t skate on it.

According to a new study of FRB 121102 published in The Astrophysical Journal, the consistent position and strength of of the bursts indicate that the radio waves are not created by a man-made satellite nor could they be ruled out as background radiation:

The underlying origin and timescales of this behavior remains uncertain […] The spectra of those bursts are also not well described by a typical power law and vary significantly from burst to burst.

Spectrographic data of one of the bursts.

Spectrographic data of one of the bursts.

While many of us would love that to mean that these radio transmissions are being beamed from an alien civilization’s television antennae, the researchers speculate a more natural source is behind these radio anomalies:

The nearly certain extragalactic distance and repeating nature of FRB 121102 lead us to favor an origin for the bursts that invokes a young extragalactic neutron star. Supergiant pulses from young pulsars or magnetars or radio counterparts to magnetar X-ray bursts remain plausible models.

Sigh. Neutron stars. It’s always neutron stars. However, with more and more fast radio bursts being detected all the time, astronomers still believe these anomalous radio signals to be our best bet of finding life elsewhere in the universe. Just this year, the world’s largest radio telescope was constructed in China to aid in the search for possible alien civilizations. Keep those fingers crossed.