The search for aliens giveth, the search for aliens taketh away. It seems like every time there is a major discovery which might hint at the existence of alien life, it’s quickly refuted and explained away by banal, boring explanations. Things got exciting at the end of last year when our solar system received its first interstellar visitor, prompting many scientists to speculate it might be some type of craft. Turns out it was just some dumb rock covered in space gunk. It’s always some dumb rock.
Other than that dumb rock, one of the biggest stories of 2017 was FRB121102, a mysterious source of so-called fast radio bursts, or FRBs. The powerful, anomalous radio signals emanating from FRB121102 were unlike anything else observed in the universe, lending hope that they may actually be an attempt at communication from a distant alien civilization. Turns out it’s just some dumb neutron star in an “extreme environment” which causes the radio waves shooting out from it to ‘twist’ as they travel through space. Ok, that actually sounds pretty cool.
In a new study published this week in Nature, a massive team of astronomers from around the world analyzed data from FRB 121102 and believe they might have found a unique environment in deep space unlike anything we’ve discovered so far. An “extreme magneto-ionic environment” is believed to surround a powerful neutron star some 3 billion light years away, and this highly magnetic environment is what causes the radio waves to “twist and shout” the way they do. Neutron stars are known to emit radio waves, but this is the first time scientists have seen one affected by such an extreme magnetic environment. James Cordes, the George Feldstein Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University, says this area of space is extremely hostile:
We estimate the magnetic field and gas density surrounding the blast source, and we can link them, for example, with a model involving a young magnetar – a neutron star with an especially large magnetic field – to the central engine that produces the bursts. This is exotic. If we had one of these on the other side of our own galaxy – the Milky Way – it would disrupt radio here on Earth, and we’d notice, as it would saturate the signal levels on our smartphones. Whatever is happening there is scary. We would not want to be there.
FRB 121102 is so strong that a radio burst lasting just a millisecond emits more energy than our Sun does in an entire Earth day. Researchers believe there is likely a massive black hole nearby causing the bursts, but more observation is needed. While FRB 121102 might not be aliens, a hellish magnetic storm surrounding a giant black hole sounds terrifyingly awesome. Space might be devoid of life (as far as we know), but it’s still pretty rad.