The search for extraterrestrial life has lately been focused on fast radio bursts (FRBs), short but incredibly powerful spikes in radio signals coming from beyond our own galaxy. While some scientists have optimistically pointed to these as proof of advanced alien civilizations, there are plenty of naturally-occurring astrophysical phenomena which could just as easily create such spikes.
However, a recently-discovered FRB seems to defy the explanations astrophysicists typically assign to such anomalous signals. In a new pre-publication study on arXiv.org, an international body of astronomers searched for the usual follow-up signals across radio, optical, X-ray, gamma-ray, and neutrino emission bands. None were found.
The study’s main author, Emily Petroff from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, told Gizmodo that this latest radio burst is a complete anomaly. Astronomers all over the world ran various tests to determine what its origin might be, Petroff says, but none of those tests was conclusive:
We spent a lot of time with a lot of telescopes to find anything associated with it. We got new wavelength windows we’ve never gotten before. We looked for high-energy gamma rays and neutrinos...we ruled out some source classes but no detection is a little unhelpful. We’re still trying to figure out where this one came from. It’s not very often in science that you get to work on something that’s so brand new and so unknown that you get to answer the fundamental questions.
This particular radio burst, named FRB 150215, passed through an incredibly dense region of the Milky Way on its way to Earth, possibly beaming through a tiny gap between stars and other bodies along the way.
While some might say this is a sign that the signal was beamed intentionally towards us by an advanced race of aliens, Petroff has been insisting through her Twitter account that she does not believe the radio burst has an alien origin. In all likelihood, there is a perfectly natural explanation for the radio signal such as a gamma ray burst or exploding star, but our telescopes likely missed it just prior to detecting the burst. Still, discovering how to identify and trace the origins of these signals might some day lead to that one lucky discovery which changes everything - or crush our hopes and make us realize just how alone we are.