Sep 01, 2017 I Brett Tingley

Mysterious Deep Space Radio Signal Sends Rapid-Fire Burst

For those of us who have spent most of our lives yearning for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, the headlines over the last few years about fast radio bursts have been some of the most promising news yet. These anomalous radio signals are short, powerful bursts of radio waves that stand out against cosmic background radiation. Sure, there are plenty of natural phenomena that might be the source of these radio signals, but there are also plenty of other theories which suggest they might be proof of advanced alien technology. The big takeaway is that we don’t know what the source of these signals are, and they’re vastly different from most of the natural radio sources typically observed in the universe.

The first fast radio burst (FRB) was discovered in 2007. Since then, dozens of other FRB sources have been located - but not identified.

In news that’s sure to excite fellow SETI enthusiasts, one of the most active and unexplained sources of fast radio bursts appears to be going hyperactive. Two UC Berkeley astronomers who have been studying the radio source named FRB 121102 report that fifteen separate bursts were detected in a five hour period this week, marking the most significant discovery of deep space radio activity yet.

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The 300-millisecond pulses traveled through space for 3 billion years before reaching our radio telescopes.

The signals were discovered by the Breakthrough Listen program, the most comprehensive deep-space listening project to date. In a UC Berkeley press release, Andrew Siemion, director of both the Berkeley SETI Research Center and the Breakthrough Listen program says that “bursts from this source have never been seen at this high a frequency.”

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FRB 121102 comes from a distant dwarf galaxy more than three billion light-years away. If there is intelligent life there, it will be a very, very long time before we meet them.

Breakthrough Listen postdoctoral researcher Vishal Gajjar discovered the rapid-fire radio bursts and says that the quality of the data is unprecedented, allowing researchers to examine every detail of these bursts:

As well as confirming that the source is in a newly active state, the high resolution of the data obtained by the Listen instrument will allow measurement of the properties of these mysterious bursts at a higher precision than ever possible before.

Of course, the team is quick to note that the signals are far from conclusive proof of alien life - as of now anyway. Still, analysis of these signals should prove interesting and help flesh out our understanding of similar fast radio bursts. As we learn how to locate and discern these radio signals, we could potentially get the sign we’ve all been waiting for. Or, you know, have our collective hope that we're not alone crushed.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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